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20 Million Miles to Earth Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 16, 2007

    20 Million Miles to Earth Review
    “Fascinating. Horrible, but fascinating.”

    Whilst writing a script for a film that would never see the light of day, The Elementals - a story devised so that he could get himself to Paris - Ray Harryhausen stumbled across tales of the Ymir, a giant primeval being from Scandinavian mythology. After many convolutions and plot changes, the creature of yore ultimately transformed into the reptilian Venusian hard-ass that made Harryhausen's third film for B-movie mogul Charles H. Schneer, after It Came From Beneath The Sea and Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, so damn memorable. Still called the Ymir, although the finished film would eventually drop all mention of the creature's name, 20 Million Miles' famous monster would form the catalyst for a lot of wannabe filmmakers like John Carpenter, Joe Dante and Terry Gilliam and visual effects people such as Dennis Muren, Rick Baker and Stan Winston. Harryhausen's unique gift for animating lifeless lumps of clay is, of course, legendary, but with this picture he really came into his own. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1952) and the giant octopus from It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955) proved his ability to animate large-scale creatures and put them into live-action backgrounds and opposite smaller-scale people, who would naturally shriek and run in terror. But 20 Million Miles was different. Although the Ymir would eventually grow to large, city-rattling dimensions, he would start out as small and somewhat cute, drastically changing the scale of the drama and the empathy stakes that the audience would experience whilst it unfolded. In short, it gave Harryhausen the amazing opportunity to invest his stop-motion character with something that hadn't been seen since his main influence, the mighty King Kong, had first torn through Skull Island and New York City an incredible twenty-four years before - and that was genuine emotion. Now released in colour to commemorate its 50th Anniversary, 20 Million Miles To Earth has been imbued with new life and vigour, the colorizing process that specialist company Legend have bestowed upon it literally transforming it with a truly convincing and marvellously lurid sheen. And now, at long last, Ymir is back to his green scaly glory.

    I'll discuss the colour of this new-look version in more detail in the Picture section of the review.

    This one, folks, was a favourite of mine when I was a kid. It never seemed to be shown very often - and I mostly had to content myself with gawping at pictures from it in books - but its star monster was a class act that lingered at the back of mind, refusing to budge. Originally intended to be somewhat more akin to the great Cyclops from The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (the very best of the Sinbad movies - despite that damned cute-kid genie), Ymir soon developed into a swiftly growing humanoid muscle-beast with scales, a handle-bar moustache and a mighty swishing dinosaur's tail. Now this was stop-motion animation. Just a creation of pure clay-composed imagination, hell-bent on a jerkily-manipulated rampage across 1950's Italy. Yep, it was indeed a strange location for a Hollywood monster-flick, but that just added to the exotic quality of this unreasoning beast. Although credited as being written by Bob Williams and Christopher Knopf this was, in fact, all down to Harryhausen, himself. He had written several versions of the story, utilising the Cyclops and even a Satyr, before finally settling on the reptilian creature that is brought back to Earth, in jelly form, on a US rocketship returning from Venus that has crashed into the sea off the coast of Sicily.

    ”I've had nightmares in my time, but I've never dreamed of anything like this.”

    The one surviving astronaut, Col. Calder (William Hopper from Rebel Without A Cause) follows the zany tale from start to finish, mimicking all those other diligent 50's sci-fi heroes (including those stalwart military berks in the two prior movies Harryhausen made for Schneer), who seem to outstay the point at which their involvement, in reality, would come to an end. Hooking up with a zoologist and his beautiful daughter, played by Joan Taylor (they are so predictable, aren't they?), Calder watches as the vulnerable baby Ymir that has hatched from a gelatinous mass that he had brought back in a glass specimen jar, doubles in size and then escapes. These early sequences are actually the best - the crashed spaceship sticking up out of the sea as fishermen discover it, and the baby Ymir's cute vulnerability, when still only small, has such a magical quality about it that you simply cannot take your eyes off it. His tiny claw-scratching birth sequence is a majestic piece of animation that really captivates, and check out the great framing that has the baby Ymir stand up into the light of an open doorway as the unwitting Joan Taylor enters stage left. The image of little Ymir is clearly recalled in Harryhausen's later homunculus from The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (1973). Earth's atmosphere, coupled with Ymir's partiality to sulphur, seems to have a bizarre and frightening effect upon the volatile Venusian, enabling him to grow incredibly quickly, gaining strength and ferocity all the time. A scene in a barn when a farmer and his dog corner the beast features the splendidly atmospheric sequence of the dog/Ymir skirmish played out in shadow against the wall. Although it was due to the lack of budget that meant the rebuilding an initially poor dog-puppet had to be scrapped, the scene is actually more impressive for this non-explicit set-to. The whole confrontation is actually very well done, with Ymir's pure menace really amplified with the mauling of the aggrieved farmer (who looks alarmingly like little Ronnie Corbett when he donned the fake 'tache and bushy eyebrows for the famous Phantom Raspberry Blower series for The Two Ronnies!) The interaction between the Venusian and the rural cops, Calder and a boffin or two in the claustrophobic battleground of the barn is extremely well shot, the lighting of the beast as he comes after the humans and steps through shadows is exquisite, likewise the framing of the dead body in a swathe of lamplight, upping the threat levels considerably.

    “All you ever try to be is nice ... and I just snarl.”

    A subsequent sequence has the creature hunted by troops and a US Army helicopter equipped with a huge net. Picturesque shots of the alien crossing streams and being pursued by teams with German Sherpherd Dogs are impressively composed and it should come as no surprise that it was Harryhausen who storyboarded and worked such things out. Nathan Juran may have the director's credit, but Harryhausen's effects take centre-stage and only he knew how to film them which is precisely why these movies are always referred to as Ray Harryhausen films, their specific directors largely forgotten. It is just a shame that he couldn't take charge of the non-effects segments as well - as I'm sure he could have coaxed more convincing performances out of the cast! Well, save for Tito Vuolo who seems to be under the impression he is up for an Oscar as the compassionate Sicilian fisherman. Of course, once the delinquent alien has been recaptured and shipped to the illustrious Rome Zoo for a photo-shoot in front of the world's press, events are going to conspire to have him set loose again, enraged by a foolhardy elephant in the celebrated Kong-inspired tussle and then, in his determination to wreak havoc amongst the famous ruins of the Coliseum, battle bazookas, machine-guns and artillery. It's all very formulaic, but spirited stuff. The battle between Ymir and the elephant has all the violent ingredients of a prime-beef smackdown, but I can't be the only one that wishes he would crush and stamp more humans and tear down more buildings instead. But that moment when he rears up through a bridge that Calder and his men are standing on is priceless - look at the water glistening on his scales and the detail on the ripped-up masonry. Well, it would be priceless, if it weren't for the astonishingly wooden William Hopper who just has to have the all-time worst reactions to off-screen action that I have ever cringed through. Honestly, just look at him as the previously missing Ymir suddenly reappears at the side of the bridge right in front of him to witness one of the most stultifyingly dull and insipid expressions a human face can portray in response to such a fearsome sight. You can imagine Harryhausen watching the film now and wishing that he could have had at least two minutes to manipulate the actor's slab-like visage into something more appropriate.

    For me, Ymir works best at the smaller scale, which still retains that sense of wonder. Like a toy come to life, he embodies the purest qualities of what vintage fantasy cinema could produce. Even during his man-sized jaunt through the countryside he attains a surprisingly childlike fragility. We are obviously meant to care for him - a stranger in a strange land who has done no wrong - and his complete lack of animosity towards a herd of horses or a lonely lamb are supposed to emphasize this. Yet the score from Mischa Bakaleinikoff constantly tells a different story and just reinforces his terrifying appearance and undoubted ferocity so, whatever charm he possesses, it is always tempered by unease and fear at what he'll do if provoked. Therefore, poor Ymir can never be as tragically poignant as his larger predecessor, Kong, despite Harryhausen's best intentions to tug the heartstrings.

    The stop-motion animator has stated that he chose Italy purely so that the production could take him to some sights that he longed to see, and this is certainly apparent during the climactic melee, which is just a tourist-map of the Roman hot-spots. It is definitely an odd sight to see Italian soldiers scuttling about the ruins instead American GI's, although the game of pass-the-bazooka gets a tad wearisome, with Hopper's Calder rushing about and barking orders to scampering troops who act like the Mexican soldiers in the old TV show Zorro. Too many shots of Italian bystanders defuse the situation due their complete lack of credibility and the sight of vehicles nonchalantly trundling along roads whilst an alien monster is supposedly causing havoc all around can be a little distracting, but I do enjoy the poor squaddies getting squashed by those polystyrene blocks of stone, though. And, now in colour, you can see a little bit of gore on their bodies, too.

    “Caught me unprepared. I've been cooking over a hot creature all day.”

    The fact that this film has been the recipient of such a lavish makeover can only bode well for the later and greater offerings from Ray Harryhausen to reach the high definition stage. The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad and, obviously, Jason And The Argonauts would be at the forefront of any wish-list. But it is reassuring to know that their creator is getting involved so closely with their new incarnations, as you will discover when you investigate the special features. Ray Harryhausen certainly loves his stop-motion children and you can rest assured that he will stay on-hand to help nurture them over their next evolution. When I reviewed the triple-movie boxset of the Ray Harryhausen Gift Set about two years ago, I lamented the upsetting notion that his style had passed its sell-by date. Oh, the true classics - Seventh Voyage and Jason - still remain as tall and as proud as the bronze giant, Talos, himself, but with regards to this and others of his oeuvre I, rather rashly, came to the conclusion that such earlier works were undeniably clunky and that even their effects suddenly seemed part and parcel of inept and cheesy filmmaking. Well, viewing 20 Million Miles To Earth now, in its splendidly colourised version, has taken me by the scruff of the neck and shaken that cynical CG-infected mindset out of me. The feast of imagination and Boys Own vigour is simply beyond reproach and even if the story - astronauts return to Earth carrying something decidedly sinister - is reminiscent of Hammer's own Nigel Kneale adaptation The Quatermass Experiment (from 1955) it goes off on its own enjoyably incident-packed tangent and forges new ground with verve and bravado.

    Ymir is reborn ... and his future is green. Bright green.

    Please note that you can switch between the colour and the b/w versions whilst the film plays, but on Samsung players, the multi-angle icon remains on-screen throughout the entire movie no matter what you do, which can, of course, be irritating.