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20 Million Miles to Earth

20 Million Miles to Earth(1957)

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When you think of the most entertaining science fiction films of the 1950s and 60s, Ray Harryhausen is a name that comes immediately to mind, a name that conjures worlds of hostile aliens and jaunty mythological creatures. Since he was usually a special effects supervisor Harryhausen wouldn't normally be credited as one of the main creative forces but nevertheless his name is the guarantee of quality behind films like Jason and the Argonauts, Mysterious Island and The Valley of Gwangi. Harryhausen's stop-motion animation and painstaking blend with live actors created a sense of wonder and such plausibility that you didn't really question seeing a man swordfight with a moving skeleton. A sterling example of Harryhausen's skill and one of his best films is 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), now available in a bonus-filled two-disc release in time for its 50th anniversary.

20 Million Miles follows the same template that many such films inherited from King Kong, appropriately enough the film that inspired Harryhausen to become a stop-motion animator. The film opens with Sicilian fishermen witnessing the crash of a rocket in offshore waters. They rescue two men and a mysterious cylinder, the latter spirited away by a small boy with an eye on its resale value. It turns out that this rocket was a secret trip to Venus, which apparently means Earth's astronomers and amateur stargazers were all asleep during its weeks-long trip. (The distance also provides the film's title though in fact Venus is never closer than 25 million miles from Earth.) What they've brought back is a specimen of the local wildlife. This critter, which you've already guessed was in the cylinder, starts life just a few inches tall and charmingly lizard-like. Somehow the Venusian visitor quickly grows, becoming hungry and more a threat to the local inhabitants or at least their farm animals. Toss in a strong-chinned American pilot from the spaceship and a pretty doctor's assistant who just happens to be visiting Sicily so you have the requisite love interest. Then close with a slam-bang sequence as the bus-sized critter sets his eyes on Mama Roma and you've got a film that hits all the bases.

What makes 20 Million Miles so effective is that the creature is never purely a vicious threat or purely an adorable lost animal and in fact often has more personality than the human characters. Its actions are understandable when it protects itself or looks for food and unlike the lead in so many giant animal movies it's not merely rampaging against humanity or showing the folly of our tampering with nature. When threatened the Venusian visitor reacts appropriately; one example in a barn sequence is still quite effectively unnerving and must have left lasting impressions on a lot of kids back in 1957. As an indication of the times, the Americans aren't interested in the commercial aspects of the animal as with King Kong, at least not explicitly, but want to study it for scientific purposes. (The film was released just four months before Sputnik's launch.) Harryhausen effectively reimagines the creature as it grows from scampering around a table top to just the size that can punch a car to clambering about multi-story buildings.

Director Nathan Juran was a real journeyman who later worked with Harryhausen on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and First Men in the Moon (1964). Juran certainly kept the pace going and wasn't much distracted by anything that didn't forward the story. He did have some problems with blocking so that at times you almost wish one character would move out of the way but fortunately that's not a common problem. More importantly is that there's enough snap to the action sequences to keep the film in front of audiences for fifty years, unlike many similar outings of the period which require more of an enthusiast's eye. Overseeing the story was writer Christopher Knopf, nephew of the publisher Alfred Knopf and later winner of several Writer's Guild awards. There's not much in the way of depth to the script but the dialogue mostly avoids ponderous declamations and the characters mainly act in realistic ways, from the fisher boy who finances the purchase of a cowboy hat by selling local oddities or the Italian government officials suppressing their resentment of American interference. Which may sound like faint praise but it's such details that are the difference between 20 Million Miles or something more forgettable such as The Hideous Sun Demon.

The new release includes several extras of interest. Harryhausen provides a commentary along with current special effects experts Dennis Muren (Terminator 2) and Phil Tippett (Jurassic Park). There are also some shorter video pieces such as an interview with Harryhausen, one that shows a meeting between him and long-time fan Tim Burton, a bit about the film's history and another about the music. The new DVD does include one bonus of uncertain value: a colorized version of the film. Harryhausen claims that he had wanted to shoot the film in color but even if that's true what was shot was a blunt, brightly lit B-movie typical of the time. As such we don't even have to consider the questions of whether any film should be colorized or not since the end result here is just plain ugly. This type of shooting doesn't take to colorization well, often looking like layers of color were simply added to the image. The technology is admittedly much improved from the earliest attempts but that doesn't amount to much. Still, the colorization is more or less irrelevant considering the fine black-and-white transfer and the other material that gives weight to the film.

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by Lang Thompson