Ray Harryhausen's last b&w movie shows him at the height of his technical prowess, creating fantastic movie magic singlehandedly in a slightly underachieving science fiction tale that nevertheless showcases his talent in the best possible light. His Venusian monster, called a Ymir everywhere but in the movie itself, is a fascinating creature, a disoriented stranger in a strange world that battles an elephant and the Army among familiar Roman landmarks.
20 Million Miles to Earth shows the Harryhausen-Schneer team deftly assembled a quality product that delivered the goods far better than other monster thrillers of the late '50s. Sam Katzman had a goofy marionette turkey in his abysmal The Giant Claw, while Bert I. Gordon tried in vain to produce satisfactory special effects in his derivative klunkers. Harryhausen provided exciting thrills that equalled the great King Kong in technique, and kids loved the imaginative illusions of the Ymir smashing through ancient pillars, crushing cars and wrestling a bull elephant to the ground. No fumbled superimposures or lame cutaways here - if the Ymir wants to pick up a screaming victim, we see them both in the same shot. Schneer and Harryhausen even show some marketing smarts, giving their thriller a title that seems to be a vague transposition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to perhaps engender some unconscious association with the Disney success.
After working so hard to wreck San Francisco and Washington D.C. in his previous films about giant octopi and flying saucers, Harryhausen got his personal wish to see Europe by having 20 Million Miles to Earth, or at least its second unit, based in Rome. The script is functional and little more, with a token romance with nurse "almost a doctor" Joan Taylor (back for more career punishment after Earth versus the Flying Saucers), and some depressingly lame rural Italian characters who are dropped as soon as the story moves to Rome. William Hopper does as good as can be expected with his spaceman role, but is upstaged by bit player Tito Vuolo, who's very good as a stock Italian police chief.
Harryhausen's acknowledged classics are the later, larger-scaled fantasies he made after he successfully integrating color into his Dynamation process, but there's something modestly balanced about 20 Million Miles to Earth that the later films lack. Yes, it's a lowly monster movie, but it has integrity, and the sense of an true author behind it. Far more successfully than Willis O'Brien, Harryhausen became the first special effects artisan-star, creating practically the whole film himself. His example was a key inspiration for thousands of effects people working today. It's rather amusing to see a modern digital picture with 4 or 500 effects people credited, and then look back at a picture like 20 Million, and there's just one. I don't think Harryhausen even used an assistant at this point in his career.
The Ymir, at least at the beginning, has more opportunities for sympathy than could be found in his previous spectacles with Charles Schneer. The design is excellent, humanoid but alien, with a dinosaur-like head reminiscent of Ray's earlier Rhedosaurus from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and the Jupiterian monster of his home movie experiments. The goat-legs make the Ymir more bird-like than simian, but Harryhausen imparts a few 'Joe Young' body motions to the creature early on. We like the weird Ymir; we respect his right to live because he's an embodiment of his creator-animator's personality.
If anything, the only disappointment in the show is the monster's lack of character development. The scenes of it trapped in the barn are some of Harryhausen's best work in b&w, moodily lit and expertly blocked. When Hopper pokes it with a pole in the hayloft, the illusion is so nicely judged, we forget we're watching a trick shot - we're concerned for the monster when he's dog-bit and stuck with a pitchfork. The Ymir has some sympathetic moments trying to relate to a lamb, and when it wanders about trying to understand his strange new habitat, we wonder if we'll see more signs of a personality.
But the Ymir remains a dumb animal, never making a connection with the humans that we'd be perfectly ready to accept. As soon as it's a giant monster on the loose, spectacle takes over, and the scenes of its tragic demise are impressive but emotionally uninvolving. Mighty Joe Young had us all in tears, and even the monstrous Beast was a big, pissed-off puppy we were really sad to see shot down in flames. After the sterile saucers and octopus, the Ymir seems an opportunity slightly missed.
But as monster movies go, the spectacle we get is top stuff. The spaceship crash is a little foolish-looking now, but was state-of-the-art in 1957. The Dynamation 'reality sandwich' effects often come up with very convincing views of the monster loose in the streets of Rome. Art director-turned film director Nathan Juran was proud enough of his work to use his full name, instead of the 'Nathan Hertz' he put on dogs like Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. He must have impressed his producers, because they reteamed with him twice more. The film is about 50% Hollywood actors emoting in front of rear-projected footage of Italy, a cost-saving liability that Juran and the excellent 2nd unit manage to minimize. Several dolly setups in the Coliseum are effectively suspenseful, and a fast montage of soldiers scrambling heralds the reappearance of the 'new, improved' giant loose among the ancient ruins.
Knowing that the, 'invent a giant threat-wreck a city' theme was a financial dead end, after 20 Million Miles to Earth's modest succes Ray and Charles took the leap and went to England, tackling color and upgrading their ambition to multi-monster fantasies in which Columbia was willing to invest more money. As a team, they never entirely whipped their tendency toward deficient scripts, but continued making audience-pleasing shows all the way through the '60s. With their next show, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, they hit the jackpot. Instead of the hodge-podge of new and library cues peppered through this picture, the bold music of Bernard Herrmann blended perfectly with Harryhausen's animated magic, and carried his work to the next level of wonder.
Columbia Tristar has been flirting with flat-only releases, so it comes as a relief that their Ray Harryhausen signature Collection DVD of 20 Million Miles to Earth has both flat and 16:9 transfers. The anamorphic version was the one examined for this review. It's good-looking but has some scenes early on with distracting digital grain where earlier analog releases were smooth, especially the surface of the Venus rocket as it sticks up out of the sea. This, and the heightened grain in any shot with smoke, leads Savant to surmise that the DVD encoding is at fault. It isn't much of a bother however, and is hardly noticed in later scenes. The box text claims the film was remastered in high def.
Columbia includes the same extras found on earlier Harryhausen DVDs - the 'This is Dynmation' featurette, and the excellent Richard Schickel documentary, where you can see fascinating samples of Harryhausen's pre-feature work, including the Ymir-like 'Jupiterian'. The effective trailer is included. More hints of an economy drive at Columbia is the fact that the label's usual multiple audio tracks and subtitles have been dropped -there's English mono, English and French subs, and nothing more.
20 Million Miles to Earth is a monsterrific favorite and a welcome DVD. If Columbia just stays committed to the 16:9 - enhanced transfers, particularly for the remaining Harryhausens and the forthcoming Curse of the Demon and Revenge of Frankenstein, all will be well ...
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,