This week Sci-Fi Saturdays looks at the early Ray Harryhausen monster-classic 20 Million Miles to Earth.
A middling sci-fi film from the late 1950s, 20 Million Miles to Earth is a classic for the stop motion special effects provided by creature master Ray Harryhausen. The film works as a showcase of his talents while providing an enjoyable afternoon matinee style adventure.
A rocket from a manned expedition to Venus crashes near Italy and some alien specimen escapes, terrorizing both town and country. The army is helpless to stop the creature as it turns on the Colosseum in Rome. How will the army stop it?
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The description of the trailer above pretty much outlines the entire film. 20 Million Miles to Earth opens with the first manned rocket ship to Venus returning to Earth and crashing into the Mediterranean Sea just off the coast of Sicily. A pair of fishermen and a young boy, Pepe (Bart Bradley), see the accident, and row over to help. They manage to rescue the commander of the ship, Colonel Robert Calder (William Hopper), and one other man, before the entire vessel sinks to the bottom of the sea.
Major General McIntosh (Thomas B. Henry) contacts the Italian government to begin a joint recovery project and flies to Italy to oversee the potential rescue operations. As the fishermen unload the Colonel at the beach, Pepe discovers a tube labeled “USAF Project 5” which contains a gelatinous material inside. He takes this strange egg to a visiting zoologist, Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia), who purchases odd things from Pepe to humor the boy.
Later that night the egg hatches and a small monster only 6-8 inches high is released. Dr. Leonardo’s daughter Marisa (Joan Taylor) discovers the creature and calls he father in, who places it in one of his cages. The next morning the creature has grown to be several feet in height and manages to escape from the cage, roaming the countryside, attacking a farmer’s dog.
Having recovered mostly from his injuries, Col. Calder asks the Italian Commissario for permission to attempt to capture the creature for further study. The official agrees and Calder sets up a strike team, including Dr. Uhl (John Zaremba) and a number of army men to fly an electrified net over the creature to stun and capture it. The mission is successful and the creature is taken in for study.
Dr. Leonardo and Marisa, also a doctor, begin running tests on the creature. As a technician moves some equipment, they accidentally knock out the electricity which is keeping the monster (now a 20 foot giant) unconscious. It escapes and begins to run rampant in Rome. Bullets, flamethrowers and even bazooka shells don’t seem to damage it in any way.
Calder and a large faction of US Army forces, complete with tanks and other weapons, surround the creature, who has taken refuge in the Colosseum. The men manage to fire numerous projectiles at the monster without damaging any of the historic architecture. The creature climbs to the top of the structure taking continuous fire from the Army weapons until it finally falls to the road. The landing causes it injury enough that in dies. The end.
“Why is it always, always so costly for Man to move from the present to the future?” – Dr, Uhl
History in the Making
20 Million Miles to Earth is a completely adequate sci-fi film. Even being one of the highest rated science-fiction films from 1957, falling into the top five of over 30 genre films from that year, it really has nothing going for it other than its amazing special effects created by Ray Harryhausen.
Sci-Fi Saturdays looked at a previous Harryhausen film a few weeks ago with Earth vs The Flying Saucers, which is an outlier in his oeuvre. In that film Harryhausen was simply animating spaceships, but he is best known for his creature animations, such as the Ymir creature in 20 Million Miles, and the various creatures from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), or Clash of the Titans (1984).
Not only does his animations include the alien beast from Venus, but he also animates several human characters that interact with it, as well as an elephant. This first feature length use of Harryhausen’s animation talent, dubbed dynamation, would lead to his work on more than a dozen more films, each one having more creatures and special effect sequences than the one before.
Much of the genre elements in 20 Million Miles to Earth are set up off screen. While the film opens with the crash of the Venus shuttle, the film is really more of a monster epic, akin to King Kong. It seems as if the idea of a flight to Venus and the backstory was really only a way to create a plausible reason for the monster to exist, and thereby showcase Harryhausen’s work.
The extent of any social commentary is summed up by the quote above. That’s really the only non-plot related inquiry that the film makes. Mankind of the 50s never seemed ready for the advances, or consequences, that come from the scientific breakthrough..
What’s most interesting about the fact that mankind has made their first trip to Venus, is that the public was unaware of such a trip. It’s not until the ship crashes and the military holds a press conference that anyone becomes aware of the voyage. To believe that a trip of such magnitude could be held in secrecy is actually quite ludicrous under closer examination.
But, the lack of warning about the trip and the appearance of the monster as a direct result of that seems to be a allegory for the surprise that nuclear energy brought to the world. The opening narration states that “breathtakingly unexpected, for example, was the searing flash that announced the atomic age.” If that “marvel” was unexpected, due to its secrecy than so too must the arrival of a monster from another world, who brings destruction without chance of defeat. It is only a fluke that the Ymir was able to be killed.
The Science in The Fiction
As with the plausibility of the secrecy of the trip to Venus, the explanation as to why the creature grows as it does, and is able to sustain repeated hits with bullets and bombs seems truly far fetched. Somehow the monster has neither a heart, nor lungs. It’s body is made up of a series of small tubes, and thus cannot be killed via normal means. It can be sedated by electricity, and yet still killed when falling from a moderate height.
The Final Frontier
Joan Taylor was also the lead actress in the previous Harryhausen film, Earth vs The Flying Saucers. She plays a similar role here, but has even less to do than she did in that film. As a female character, she is reduced here to a nurse (even though she’s almost a doctor), and the love interest for the Colonel.
20 Million Miles to Earth is not a bad film, but it is one that doesn’t take any risks. It relies heavily on special effects, as many future sci-fi films would do, rather than characterization. And the plot is simple and straightforward, leading to an inevitable conclusion. That said, it is a classic film that sets an example for future filmmakers about the use of special effects to drive a story forward.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.