20 Million Miles To Earth 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Review
PictureOk, now as I've said, this release gives you the option of viewing the film in either its original black and white or in the lavish new colourised version. Both versions come in at 1.85:1 and in 1080p (AVC-MPEG-4). But, opting for the b/w will bring in the grain and the murkiness that have always dogged this movie. Clarity may be greater than you recall from its TV outings and previous home video incarnations, but the whole point of this exercise is really to showcase the wonderful achievements that Legend have made with the colorization process. The purists out there can throw their arms up in despair if they want to, but this new edition is an absolute delight - vivid, bright, engrossing and, above all, utterly convincing. It is pertinent to note that the film was always intended to have been filmed in colour, Harryhausen citing only budgetary restrictions denying them the opportunity. Ymir was always meant to a garish green colour - something that Harryhausen had actually hoped would even translate to the original b/w stock in something other than varying shades of grey - although quite why he thought that is beyond me, folks. But now, we can see the Venusian beast in all his livid, shiny scaled glory.
As the great Harryhausen, himself, says in the commentary and the feature on the colouring of the film, the film now looks as though it was always filmed in the colour, so natural is the effect. And I can't argue. I was reasonably impressed with the new colourised version of The Thing From Another World - although why they shortened that version of the film is a source of irritation - but 20 Million Miles goes way beyond it in terms of hue, detail, saturation, shadow-play and lighting. Quite simply, I defy you not to be stunned by the effect. Now before you guys all get the wrong idea - I am not an advocate of just taking old classic films and painting them into a colourful vista that they were never supposed to have in the first place - and, to be fair, there probably aren't all that many that would actually benefit from such a revamp. Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Psycho and The Haunting would definitely not be improved in any way by such intensive tinkering. Skies, landscapes, skin-tones and costumes all possess a lustre that doesn't stand out and scream “Hey, look at me - I'm in colour!” They look genuine - well, all apart from William Hopper's electric-green eyes which are quite disturbing. We also get to see the blood on the courageous elephant, as well as the patently stuck-on “pizza-infection” on Calder's astro-mate in much more stark and vivid clarity with colour. But check out the blinking lights in the Pentagon mission control lab and the insignia on Major General Macintosh's uniform - even the gleam on his brass medals - for pin-sharp and spot-on colouring.
As far as the high definition process goes, the image - either b/w or colour - is markedly superior to the SD version, although the added detail comes at a price. Blacks seem a little darker, to the point where some slight crushing is evident and grain levels can fluctuate between the virtually non-existent and the enhanced stippling look that the higher resolution brings with it when the stuff rears its ugly head again. Certainly in the colourised version, there are some areas of the image in which some blocking and slow-processing can be seen, usually in the background, where colours may be thicker and flicking to the b/w version reveals that this is nowhere near as apparent. However, these niggles are merely that - niggles. The benefits of the restored print - there is very little damage considering that this is a low-budget film from 1957 - are plain to see. Remarkably, the colorization process cleans up the print still further, the frame by frame tinting removing further dirt, nicks and pops from the image.
Depth to the image is reasonably impressive, too. This is especially relevant and praise-worthy when you think that a lot of the film is composited. A shot of Ymir moving behind some Roman pillars - the name of the monument sadly eludes me at the moment, but this is before he reaches the Coliseum - whilst soldiers flank him in the foreground, looks very good, with a sense of depth and distance that the SD lacks. But even smaller scenes, such as when the baby Ymir first meets his human captors in the trailer, have a more realistic visual reach. You may not be any more convinced that the actors are looking at a strange beast from Venus than you were originally, but the improvements to the stability of the image and its forced perspective are certainly more rewarding. In one particular sequence, in the barn after Ymir has been cornered, there is a really strange shot. When the rural cops begin to position the wooden cart under Calder's instructions it looks almost as though he is standing in front of a rear projected image until, that is, the cart is pushed past him, his arm even being knocked by one of the cops. But the best thing about this shot is that as the cart comes past, the image takes on a strikingly real 3D appearance. Disquieting, but cool.
So, I have to give this revamped version of the movie a big thumbs-up. Very impressive. And, if you don't fancy it, you've still got the original b/w version as well, which looks just fine with 1080p resolution.
SoundSo, there has been a great leap forward in terms of the visual aspect of Harryhausen's, but has the same miracle been wrought with its old mono soundtrack?
Well, at first you really have to wonder just what the engineers expected to get from bestowing 20 Million Miles To Earth a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 makeover. The original sound elements obviously had nothing in the way of surround channels, bass was hardly extended and there would be little depth to it rather uninspiring design. So, just what was intended from this exercise? Well, it is certainly louder and clearer than I have heard it before. The crackles and pops and overall muddiness of its former release have been removed to a large extent, meaning that the film now sounds much cleaner and less submerged in its own audio jumble. Dialogue is always clear and a lot more pleasant to hear than it had been originally. Ymir's screech and the roar of the elephant are clearer and more full-bodied. The little impacts of the bazooka shells and the blast of the recoilless rifle during the finale have a little bit more weight to them, although don't go expecting much in the way of directionality because things still sound predominantly front and centre which is, of course, where the disappointment lies.
If you must incorporate a 5.1 surround package at all, then at least make some effort to steer effects around it. I have no problem with the use of Dolby TrueHD being used to clean up the track, bolster the depth and supply a smidgeon of atmospheric ambience, but it does seem like a bit of overkill for a soundtrack as limited as that belonging to 20 Million Miles To Earth. That said though, there is some background boost to the action scenes and the score and a nice moment when Calder is tracking Ymir through the streets of Rome when we get to hear the Venusian screeching off in the distance. There is even a neat bit of eeriness when the Sicilian fishermen hear Calder's unseen spacecraft first plunging through the atmosphere and its sound seems to come not only from above, but from all around as well, intentionally directionless and confusing. Gunshots have a little bit more impact as do the rocks that Ymir likes to hurl at those interfering soldiers with their pop-guns, so this is certainly a worthwhile step-up from the original mono track. But, considering that they have retained the b/w version on this release, I suppose they really should have kept the mono track as well, to keep everybody happy.
ExtrasAnother pleasing decision regarding this 50th Anniversary Edition is the addition of plentiful, and worthwhile, extras. Previous Harryhausen discs have all contained the same roster of retrospective pieces, usually revolving around the world of Dynamation or having the effects-supremo enduring ultra-embarrassing interviews with the likes of Joe Dante and John Landis. This time out there is only one embarrassing interview, with a stuttering and shambolic Tim Burton - more on that later - whilst the emphasis is clearly on the film, itself and the process that went into modernising it.
To start things off there is a terrific commentary track from Harryhausen, who is on fine form. Joined by the likes of Dennis Muren, Phil Tippert - both acclaimed visual effects artists who probably owe their careers to the stop-motion inspiration of Harryhausen - and Arnold Kunert, a producer-director who has worked with Harryhausen on a few projects before, the film and the craftsman's art are dissected fairly comprehensively. Harryhausen only has a few instances when his memory lets him down, but the most part he very much on the ball and field's his colleagues' queries with wit and panache with regards to how effects and shots were designed and achieved. He also supplies bits of actor-anecdote, like for instance, the little boy from the fishing village, Pepe, actually went on to become Robert Urich's buddy in the TV show Vegas. The session is conducted via a video link-up across the Atlantic but, without them telling you in the first place, you'd never have thought it. Very informative and entertaining all round.
Remembering 20 Million Miles To Earth is a fun little retrospective that features Harryhausen and the usual set of participants to these things - Rick Baker, Muren, the Chiodo Brothers - as well other filmmakers, including Terry Gilliam and John Landis. Lasting for about twenty minutes, we get to see some of the conceptual artwork for when Ymir looked vastly different - a Satyr, or a close cousin of the Cyclops from Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad - and here how his actual name ended up being dropped for religious reasons. There's a lot of affection and nostalgia on show here, but it is all nice to hear and thoroughly deserved. Harryhausen supplies a good background to the production and his clear adoration and desire to emulate Willis O'Brien's King Kong is never far from his recollections. Personally, I would have liked to have seen more behind-the-scenes stills of the effects being crafted, but these possibly don't exist ... or are being kept back for the next Harryhausen coffee-table tome.
Tim Burton Sits Down With Ray Harryhausen is roughly twenty-five minutes of two master imaginators (not a real word, but it should be) having a chat about Ymir, the flying saucers from Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers and other notable aspects and creations from Harryhausen's extensive career. The problem with this, and the many other such featurettes that have adorned other discs of Harryhausen movies, is that Burton is so much in awe that he just tends to babble. Yeah, I know he's a bit a babbler at the best of times anyway, but this can get a bit wince-inducing. As usual, there are a couple of models on show for the two to play with and there are plenty of clips from the movies to illustrate Harryhausen's relevant points. All in all, this is still nice to see and you can certainly understand why the enterprise seemed such a good idea at the time, what with Burton's fondness and fascination for stop-motion animation having propelled some of his own classic films to success. But you get the feeling that the two really opened up and had a good laugh after the cameras had stopped rolling.
Then there is an interview with actress Joan Taylor, who plays the erstwhile scientist's granddaughter and eventual love interest (though refreshingly not the typical damsel in distress), but this is not specifically consigned to her experiences on 20 Million Miles To Earth, as it takes in a few other productions and memories of different directors and such like. This is good to see, though. Just imagine if William Hopper had still been around to record an interview about the movie - it would have been great to see if his on-camera reactions were still as lousy as they were back then!
The Colorization Process is a great little feature that takes a look at exactly what went into the endeavour to inject gaudy life into the vintage creature-opus. But this is actually a lot more respectful and incisive than the mere EPK promotional gimmick that it could have been. Ray Harryhausen discusses why he was pleased to allow his film to undergo the process and we get to meet the crew at Legend Films who create the restoration and colouring software that works magic into these old prints. Harryhausen is seen being shown just what is going to happen to his beloved Ymir and the results are clearly eye-popping to the master creator who now has no second thoughts about others of back catalogue receiving the same treatment. The people at Legend really know their stuff and are, in no way, mere cash-in merchants. Their love for these old movies is perfectly apparent and we get to see some of their other brush-ups too and are educated about how this new process differs so greatly from the naff paint-jobs that used to be done back in the nineties with Laurel And Hardy etc.
Film Music's Unsung Hero runs for about twenty-five minutes, which is an extraordinarily long and indulgent running time for a left-field piece about Mischa Bakaleinikov, the man who's job it was to rifle studio libraries for suitable bits and bobs of music to stuff into such B-movies as 20 Million Miles. Now, being a lover of original film scores, I was surprised by how much I ended up warming to this guy, who's career is discussed in depth by David Shecter, since he was, after all, just a jobbing musico who rarely composed anything of his own. But his skills were crafty rather being a craft, themselves. Shecter has a ball examining the many little cues that were repeated across the movies that Bakaleinikov worked on, from Harryhausen's (whose films would, of course, become the beneficiary of the great Bernard Herrmann for a time) to The Three Stooges. His penchant for simple three-note cues that he could miraculously alter - slow them, speed them, or re-instrument them - according to the specific movie is proved to be quite inspired. This is a great little aside about a considerably lesser-know element of Columbia's practices, told with a degree of wit and charm.
Then we get a sneak peek at the forthcoming comic-book spin-off to 20 Million Miles To Earth via a series of pages from the first instalment that you can toggle through and read. Cool idea and something that I will definitely be picking up just to satisfy my curiosity.
The whole package is then rounded off with a selection of original Ad Artwork, a video gallery of photos and some trailers. All things considered, this is great roster of bonuses for a film that many would otherwise neglect. Special mention should also go to the great menus, which are luridly creepy and atmospheric and play out a montage of energetic clips from the film.
VerdictCertainly the best of Harryhausen's early movies, 20 Million Miles To Earth still has more than its fair share of clunky lines, poor performances and a screenplay so stodgy you could step on it to reach the top shelf of your DVD collection. But then there is Ymir - a magnificent creation who, although composed of clay, out-acts everybody else off the screen. Some of the imagery is iconic, too. The super-sleek, silver spacecraft wedged into the ocean whilst tiny fishing vessels bob about before it. Ymir emerging from his jelly-like chrysalis and rubbing his eyes in the light of his birth and, later, the tremendous poster-boy shot of him bending a lamp-post and clutching an unfortunate passer-by. Just imagine how awesome this film could have been if Harryhausen's imagination hadn't been let down by the likes of Hopper, Frank Puglia and Thomas Browne Henry, or Nathan Juran's pedestrian direction.
The colorization process has indeed worked wonders and the film looks amazing. The 1080p transfer offers much of value, too, including some unexpected three-dimensional treats. A TrueHD audio track may be pushing things a bit too far, but the benefits of its cleaner, richer sound are not to be ignored. And, extras-wise, this 50th Anniversary Edition presents us with a smart, informative and enjoyable package that is worth its weight in gold simply for the presence of Ray Harryhausen, himself.
Highly recommended for fans of the genre and for those with an interest in vintage film restoration.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £17.95
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