20 million miles to Earth (1957) [DVD]

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I was watching a documentary a few days ago which name-checked this Ray Harryhausen film, and as it didn’t sound familiar to me I thought I needed to check it out. It turned out that I had actually seen it before – about four or five years ago – and that it’s just that the title is completely nonsensical to what follows.

Far from 20 million miles, the furthest afield we ever travel is a little fishing village on the Mediterranean island of Sicily which is the setting for the first half of the film, before proceedings subsequently decamp to Rome. In fairness, these settings were probably as exotically alien as Venus for most of the contemporary US audience seeing the film at the cinema; but they will doubtless have been comforted by the presence of the US military being in charge throughout, save for the odd moments when a catastrophically bad decision is called for which just happens to coincide with those times when the local Italian authorities insist on interceding.

The film starts surprisingly promisingly, with the Sicilian fishermen’s daily toil interrupted by a huge spaceship crash-landing in the water followed by a dramatic rescue bid and the recovery of a key scientific sample washed up on the shore. This is nicely plotted and paced and does a good job in setting up the characters in an altogether modern way. It promises much for the rest of the film.

Unfortunately the minute that the little Venusian lizard-man hatches from its gelatine mould the whole endeavour takes a steep turn for the worse, as story, logic and character soon go right out of the window and are exchanged for an FX-heavy but oddly tedious chase-encounter-fight-repeat cycle for the remaining half of the film. Everything that was previously set-up story-wise is jettisoned. There’s no longer any thought given as to what the creature may or may not be thinking, hence the hero – who previously warned that the creature was only violent if provoked – thinks that jabbing at it with a sharp stick is the best way to handle it. Despite having seen it tear its way out of an iron cage just minutes earlier, they suddenly seem to think the creature can be contained in a rickety old wooden cart. Having discovered that electrical current can keep the creature sedated, it’s only five minutes before a workman clumsily drops something on the one and only generator in the whole of Rome and the creature goes on a merry rampage through the city and its ancient ruins, including an unlikely showdown with a passing elephant. And having established that its physiology makes the creature invulnerable to gunfire, a few gunshots and near-misses from artillery shells cause it to fall not-very far and expire simply because the allotted 82 minute running time has been reached.

The film does have some likeable leads, including Perry Mason series regular William Hopper as the hero, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers’ Joan Taylor as the very appealing romantic interest, and Time Tunnel supporting player John Zaremba as scientist Dr Uhl – who really should have kept a record of the whole adventure simply so that he could have called it a ‘Uhl Log’.

But really it’s the FX that is the real star, and it’s unquestionably a fine example of Harryhausen’s craft and inimitable style. The creature design is to be frank a little uninspired, and Harryhausen’s team does seem to get confused from scene to scene (and even shot to shot) about exactly what scale the rapidly-growing creature is meant to be at any given time; but quibbles aside it’s very well realised state-of-the-art stuff for the 50s. It’s made all the better for featuring the unfamiliar Sicilian and Roman backdrops, and especially thanks to being integrated with the fabulous actual location shooting done around the Coliseum at the climax (apparently the film was set here because Harryhausen wanted to vacation around the Mediterranean.) Somehow, even the lack of colour adds to the polish and class of the production more than it should – probably best to avoid the colorization version, then, even if it was overseen by Harryhausen!

The film concludes with a vague attempt at a King Kong-esque pathos but the script simply hasn’t put nearly enough work in to achieve that. Instead of the iconic “It was beauty killed the beast” sign-off of the famous 1933 film we get a very odd and out of place homily about scientific progress – “Why is it always, always so costly for Man to move from the present to the future?” – which is so irrelevant and ambiguous from what has preceded it that you don’t know if it’s in support of or in fear of space exploration and seems to have been parachuted in from an altogether different draft of a totally different film.

What this movie is instead is one third intelligent and ambitious, one third dumb chase flick, and the last – and most important – third a showcase for the incomparable talents of Ray Harryhausen. And that surely makes it a winner in the B-movie sci-fi classic stakes by at least two-to-one if you like these sort of things, as I certainly do.