20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

After pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies, there are few special effects icons left to trip over on your way to current industry giants such as Walt Disney, Industrial Light and Magic, Digital Domain, and Pixar. In other words, there are few American special effects or animation artists alive who have the kind of name recognition that belongs to Oscar-winner Ray Harryhausen, whose stop-motion, rear-projection (“Dynamation”) technique revolutionized the industry and influenced countless generations of visual artists, including George Lucas and Henry Selick.

He left his most indelible mark on cinema with the seminal 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) — whose eye-opening slew of stop-motion tricks featured a Cyclops, a dragon, saber-rattling skeletons, and more — and Clash of the Titans. But that was his pull-out-all-the-stops shot at special effects filmmaking, one based on a solid foundation of previous audience-captivating work.

Enter 20 Million Miles to Earth‘s Ymir, a kind of Frankenstein’s monster kidnapped from Venus, is one of Harryhausen’s early masterworks of empathy and imagination. In fact, the only real knock on 20 Million Miles to Earth is one that more or less dogged Harryhausen throughout his career: his creations are more animate and sometimes infinitely more interesting than their live actor costars.

This is something you kinda figure out within the first few minutes of this sci-fi B-movie’s theorization of technocultural progress gone hubristic. It starts with a narrator’s self-absorbed preamble about how science kicks so much ass, and ending with two blue-collar Italian seamen’s banter about whether or not they should paddle on over to the huge rocket that just fell out of the sky. Only after the seamen pull two survivors — including the film’s human protagonist, Colonel Robert Calder (William Hopper) — from the sinking spaceship, do things get moving.

The other survivor is the Ymir, in pupa form. Pepe (Bart Braverman), a local kid who tags along for the rescue mission, figures this much out when he spots something weird washing up onshore in a container. Figuring it’s valuable, he sells it to a visiting zoologist, Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia), whose gorgeous daughter, Marisa (Joan Taylor), is the obvious “love interest,” and bam, you’ve got yourself a reliable monster-on-a-rampage set-up.

Evidently not afraid of contagion or spoilage, Leonardo leaves the pupa on the table in his mobile home, so it’s ready to hatch (like the subplots) as soon as Marisa comes home after tussling with an irascible Calder (hey, ease up, lady — he’s just traveled 20 million miles!) at the infirmary. And what a hatch it is — Harryhausen’s small, well-muscled Godzilla looks and plays the newborn baby to the hilt, shielding its eyes from the light Marisa turns on, contemplating being alive, a stranger in a strange land. It’s a star turn for this stop-motion creature, one that sticks with the viewer more than the silly love story developing between Marisa and Calder.

The Ymir — a byproduct of what Contino (Jan Arvan), an Italian government official, terms America’s “horrible, but fascinating” round trip to Venus (a phrase that is easily affixed to the general perception of the creature itself throughout the film) — tires quickly of being imprisoned, whether in a cage or a museum. In his quest to satisfy his indigenous urge to consume sulfur for sustenance, the Ymir endures everything from electroshock, flamethrowers, and gunfire, to a pitchfork in the back (ouch!) and full-scale military onslaughts, before he’s blasted from the top of Rome’s famed Coliseum, King Kong-style, to his untimely death. Although the Americans — here in the form of troops and scientists — seem to lament his loss, the film spends entirely too much time reveling in the havoc wreaked by the Ymir than it does condemning those who forced him into going nuts in the first place.

It isn’t until you jump into the DVD’s cool special features, namely the fabulous documentary, The Harryhausen Chronicles, that you realize that the extent of animator’s sympathies for the Ymir. He doesn’t have anything good to say about the humans who hound the poor thing to his death, though this is only visible in the film’s early scenes featuring the little Ymir. Once the creature gets bigger than the elephant he wrestles to the death in the streets of Rome, there is no question where the film’s sympathies lie, with the international military and its weaponry.

This is where the love story between Colonel Calder and Marisa comes in. Conveniently enough, the two first show a romantic interest in each other only after the Ymir breaks out of Leonardo’s cage, and they don’t couple until the end of the film, after the creature bites the dust. In standard B-move fashion, the creature serves as roadblock to the romance; indeed, while Calder’s busy with overseeing the electro-shocked Ymir, Marisa describes a “nightmare” she keeps having, involving an empty table at the Italian restaurant where the two never seem to able to find the time to meet (because, you know, Calder’s so busy with his monster and everything). And so the audience’s sympathy is diverted from Harryhausen’s fish-out-of-water Venusian to the two lovers ducking, as the bullets fly and the granite comes tumbling down — with the Ymir along for the fatal ride.

Like I said, once the Ymir metamorphoses from a lonely but interesting extra-terrestrial life form adrift on an alien planet into a full-fledged, one-dimensional monster, the film goes south and quickly. Which is where the special features thankfully come in. Other than the scenes showing the Ymir’s maturation, the DVD’s true gift is the aforementioned Harryhausen Chronicles, an extensive, behind-the-scenes look at the special effects guru’s career.

Directed by film critic Richard Schickel and titled with a nod to the animator’s lifelong buddy, Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, this look at the animator functions as part biography and part history of science fiction cinema’s visual effects. Covering everything from Harryhausen’s early work to Clash of the Titans, and including praise from Bradbury, Lucas, and Selick, The Harryhausen Chronicles indicates how mechanically complex it once was to make believable sci-fi classics. The fact that Harryhausen’s models had so many moving parts, each manipulated separately to create fluidity during lighting shifts, is something that even sci-fi film fans may not know. In these days of rampant CGI, Harryhausen’s stop-motion mechanical effects may look clunky, but they were time-intensive labors of love that vastly outdistanced the work of his peers.

So whether you’re picking up 20 Million Miles to Earth for the film itself or the peripheral materials, it is an invaluable DVD for film historians, visual effects aficionados and practitioners, and sci-fi buffs looking to pad their knowledge of cinema.

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