20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

20 Million Miles to Earth PosterKing Kong was pretty bad ass as far as monsters go. Worshipped as a god on his awesome island home, he fought an all-star cast of dinosaurs. Later, he stole a beautiful woman and bragged about it by climbing the biggest building in the greatest city on Earth. Then he took on the air power of the United States. Even his death was epic, crashing in a big smelly heap all those stories to the ground while folks waxed poetic about beauty killing the beast. In 20 Million Miles to Earth, the Ymir fought a dog. And got stabbed in the back with a pitchfork.

But I’m not telling the whole story about the utterly predictable and pedestrian life and times of the Silver Screen’s most famous stop motion monster from Venus, am I? Didn’t the Ymir kept growing? And his brief career in dog fighting isn’t truly representative of his beast brawling abilities, right?

True, he did continue to grow (because as was nonsensically theorized by the movie’s scientist, the more air the monster took in, the bigger it got because of metabolic rates or mortgage rates or something) and he moved up in weight class to fight a smallish elephant that he accidentally liberated from the zoo when he himself broke out. And the hero rammed him with his car! Who needs a fleet of bi-planes when you have a sturdy Packard?

And to the monster’s credit, he was smart enough to seek out the most recognizable tourist spot in Rome to make his last stand – the Roman Coliseum! Of course watching our hero blast away with a bazooka at the monster and blowing chunks of the ancient structure is at once hilarious and cringe-inducing.

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It also helped provide the most unintentionally funny line in the film where after the Ymir is buried beneath the rubble of newly blown up Coliseum parts, the scientist wonders “why must man’s progress to the future come at such a great, great cost?” Exactly – as a taxpayer, I can’t wait to get the bill from the Italian Antiquities Commission for this fiasco!

But what the heck is a minor league movie monster from Venus doing on Earth? Surely a creature whose days are filled with wrestling dogs and eating sulfur didn’t unlock the secret to interplanetary space travel. But humans did and if it one thing that’s guaranteed about any space mission returning to Earth, it’s that we went and brought something really ugly and crabby back with us!

Sure we had a brief backstory full of good intentions. Lots of awesome minerals on Venus, atmosphere deadly to humans, need to bring back native life form to study and see how it survives the atmosphere and if we can replicate it. (During a press tour of the combination zoo lab and space monster holding facility, a scientist solemnly advises that by using the “latest synthetics” it won’t be any problem.)

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This is obviously one of those can’t fail government schemes that manages to fail every step of the way. Aspaceship crashes off the coast of Sicily where two crew members and a sealed canister of Jell-O Brand Instant Monster are recovered. But it is the little urchin Pepe who finds that canister and sells it to a visiting zoologist so that he can buy a cowboy hat.

In what is the exact opposite of a plot twist, the zoologist’s granddaughter is a doctor who nurses our hero, Col. Calder, back to health and who has a few scenes together where they bicker before finally discussing dinner plans once this whole “monster from Venus rampaging in Rome” inconvenience is straightened out.

Following Calder’s success in using an electrified net scheme (bullets don’t work because the monsters vital organs are just a bunch of tubes! Duh!), the monster is brought to the zoo in Rome. Lay persons will no doubt wonder why the monster wasn’t housed at a more secure location like a military base, but this zoo inexplicably already had a big mad scientist lab they could use! Plus there was a guard stationed at the front door checking I.D.s so it’s not like the monster could sneak out dressed as a woman or anything.

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Following some equipment banging into each other, the monster breaks loose and heads towards its inevitable end, immune to bullets but not apparently to falling off a large ancient sports and entertainment venue.

Strictly by-the-numbers monster-on-the-loose epic, its mundane story serving only to showcase Ray Harryhausen’s special effects work. Some of it is dated now, particularly when the monster has to physically interact with another stop motion human or animal, but the composite shots in scenes where the monster is unconscious in the lab as everyone looks on are still quite effective. There is a tactile feel and physical heft to those shots that too-perfect modern CGI still never quite achieves.

Not as effective are any of the humans involved, none of them, especially the leads, are particularly memorable. But there’s so little going on in the movie other than chasing the monster, anyone could have been plugged into those roles and suffered the same fate. Other than those interested in Harryhausen’s work, there’s no compelling reason to watch this film and most will feel let down by the generic creature antics except for Pepe who at least got his cowboy hat.

© 2015 MonsterHunter

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