(1957) dir. Nathan Juran
20 Million Miles to Earth was one of my favorite monster movies of my childhood. I always loved the stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen, and I loved the monster, who like King Kong (1933), the movie monster that inspired Harryhausen, 20 Million Miles to Earth‘s Ymir, the monster from Venus, a displaced and misunderstood beast who dies from a perilous fall. The ymir, who is never called that in the movie, is a reptilian humanoid, brought back by a disasterous U.S. space mission to the planet Venus, and rapidly grows to monsterous size on Earth (interestingly in Italy). I always loved it. I got the kids excited about it. We watched it.
Years and years later (I can’t recall the last time I actually saw the film), I still found it completely excellent. I had started down a path of 1950’s science fiction with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), and The Thing from Another World (1951), and I have to say that 20 Million Miles to Earth is among the best of the period. It certainly features an amazing monster. And it’s been interesting hearing how inspirational Harryhausen’s work has been for special effects technicians who have taken over the mantle since the 1970’s who were so swayed and impressed by Harryhausen’s monsters. You do have to take them from their period, when unanimated monsters were stiff and hidden through much of the films. In Harryhausen’s work, the monsters take the screen in full form and in action, the fantasy element is alive and real (comparatively).
While my kids were less impressed with this film, I was still completely enjoying it. The setting in Rome and Sicily is actually such a notable feature. Perhaps setting a monster to attack in a non-American setting seems odd for such a traditional 1950’s American mentality monster movie, but it has its charms. The shots of Rome and the entire utilization of the bridge and the Coloseum is rich and well-done. It always stayed with me as a child, who didn’t necessarily have much of an understanding of geography. It is odd and perhaps one of the reasons that this film hasn’t reached the level of cultural impact that other Harryhausen films did, in attacking New York, San Francisco, or Washington, DC. After all, the science fiction of the 1950’s is very much an American set of metaphors, the xenophobia, the fear of science, Communism, and cultural angst. The Italians were inventing Neo-Realism. (This statement is meant to be mildly humorous, so don’t take it too seriously.)
While Jason and the Argonauts (1963) is often cited as Harryhausen’s greatest films, his personal favorite, and I agree largely with this summation, I have to say that 20 Million Miles to Earth may be my favorite of his films. And, as I have stated, I think it’s perhaps one of the best science fiction films of the 1950’s, not simply for its effects, but for the development of narrative around the effects, the characterization, the vivid action and vision. It’s good stuff.
And by the way, this is the first of what I will refer to as my “Number Fest”. I like grouping movies in various ways, and so the theme of the next several films that I will watch on DVD will be that they all begin with a number. This is a broad categorization, with films from numerous genres, styles, eras…just noting it.