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Friday, September 26, 2008

20 Million Miles From Earth

Columbia Pictures didn't go out on any artistic limbs with 20 Million Miles to Earth (20Mil). They followed some pretty trodden paths and reused some tried-and-true formulae. Mix in some real artistic talent (Ray Harryhausen) and you get movie which can't miss -- in a safe way. At its heart, 20Mil amounts to King Kong retold. The story is given a sci-fi spin by having the beast come from Venus via an American space ship, rather than a mysterious island. After that, the Kong thread takes over with the notable exclusion of the beauty-and-the-beast element. A colorized copy was released in 2007, but the color adds nothing significant beyond the beast being green.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A typically 50s rocket crash lands off the coast of Sicily. A pair of fishermen row out to the sinking rocket. They rescue two injured astronauts before it sinks. A boy finds a strange tube amid the rocket flotsam on the beach. Inside the tube is gelatinous pod. Pepe sells it to a zoologist from Rome, working nearby. The zoologist's granddaughter, a medical student, is called in to help the two hurt astronauts. While she's away, the gelatinous 'egg' hatches. Marisa returns to find the foot-tall semihumanoid reptile on their table. Leonardo puts it into a cage in his truck. The next day, the creature has doubled in size. Leonardo and Marisa pack up to return to Rome. Pepe has since told the authorities about the egg, so they pursue Leonardo. The creature, now larger, escapes the cage and into the woods. Local officials want to hunt and kill it. The Americans succeed in capturing it, using an electrified net to stun it. They take the creature to the Rome Zoo for study. It is now 30 feet tall. They keep it sedated with a steady charge of 1800 volts. An equipment accident breaks the flow, so the creature wakes up. It breaks it's bonds. An elephant charges it. Their brawl spills out onto the streets. The reptile eventually wins, but flees the military. It seeks refuge in the Colosseum. It is resistant to bullets and bazookas. Eventually, at the top of the Colosseum, the hurt creatures is hanging over the edge by one hand. A tank shot breaks the stones. It falls to the street and dies. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The real star of 20Mil is Ray Harryhausen. He animates his creature very well. The movie follows the popular Harryhausen formula of a cool stop-motion animated monster trashing famous landmarks.

Cold War Angle
There isn't any Cold War in 20Mil. The story is King Kong recast.

Nice Monster -- Unusual for a 50s sci-fi, the creature is clearly cast in a sympathetic light. Marisa declares him ugly but softens to say that he looks frightened. Colonel Calder tells people that on Venus the creatures are "...not ferocious unless they're provoked." Sure enough, the creature only fights (a dog, a man, an elephant, etc.) after they've attacked it first. Harryhausen's earlier designs for Ymir (the creature is never called this in the film) were at first too animal like -- horns, one eye. It wasn't easy to sympathize with a pure beast, "so I made him more humanoid," said Harryhausen.

Star Watching -- The female lead, Joan Taylor, starred in an earlier Harryhausen film, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers ('56), which also featured Thomas Browne Henry the typical American military officer. John Zaremba plays the American Dr. Uhl, was also in E.vs FS.

Veneer of Science -- Most of 20Mil is pure monster-on-the-loose movie. The thin coating of science amid the fiction is that people wanted to study how the Ymir was able to filter out the toxins in Venus' atmosphere so that humans could live/work there. As it stood, the toxins killed all of the crew except Calder. They physiology of the creature is described as being very different too. It was said to have no lungs and no heart or circulatory system. That's why bullets didn't stop it.

Poster Propaganda -- The movie posters say outright that the beast "invades" the earth. This was the usual sci-fi plot element. Aliens come to US with good or bad intent. Here, though, the Ymir was taken from his home world and brought (kidnapped, you might say) to earth. Once here, he's hunted (mostly out of fear) and finally killed.

Primitive Planet -- Note the perpetuation of the (then) conventional wisdom of planetary evolution. Planets farther from the sun are older, closer younger. Mars is then cast as having had its day and now home to dying civilizations. Venus, is then the prehistoric planet in which life is just getting started. Hence, the Ymir is a dinosaur-man.

Minor Gaffs -- B-movies usually have little errors due to limited budgets. In 20Mil there are only a few. One comes where the creature is in the barn. Calder wants to trap the creature in a wooden cart, even though it had just escaped a steel cage by bending the bars. Second comes in the zoo lab. The sedated creature is clearly breathing -- its chest rising and falling. The biologist is explaining how the creature has no lungs.

Bottom line? 20Mil is definitely worth watching, if only for the fun of Harryhausen's animation. His strong, but misunderstood, creature is clearly the star of the film. Where else do you get to see a fight between a reptilian humanoid and an angry mother elephant? 20Mil is light on content, but strong on entertainment.


scifibot said...

In regards to what looks like a goof about how the creature is clearly breathing yet they say it has no lungs.
Isn't really a goof, they did say it has a respiratory system. So the respiratory system would still have to at least inhale in some manner.
So the chest movement of inhaling and exhaling of breath isn't that out of place.

Randall Landers said...

Frankly, this is one of my least favorite movies, probably because of the treatment of the Ymir. A unique species like this Venusian, and it's constantly regarded as a monster. Ymir is not intended to be as sympathetic as Kong, but I feel far more worse for it than I did for Kong. Ymir was brought here from another world, and by a superior technology greater than that of Kong's era. There's no excuse for the treatment of the creature. From the little kid to the circus master, none of these people are likeable, none of them are sympathetic. A terrible film, with a terrible premise. The only thing positive one can say is that Ray Harryhausen's work was exemplary. Unfortunately, that's not enough.