20 Million Miles to Earth aka The Beast from Space (1957)

And here we have the third and final Journal Entry review in my Throwback Thursday AmeriKaiju triple feature. Going back to the work of Ray Harryhausen, we have a film that is as famous as (and as lauded as) The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and starring one of Harryhausen’s most recognizable monsters: Ymir, the thing from Venus.

When I first watched this film, I was somewhat underwhelmed by it. I’ve since watched it a second time. Has my opinion of it changed? Am I still underwhelmed by what I initially thought of as a pedestrian effort in a field of pulpy, schlocky sci-fi monster puppetry?

Originally posted 03/01/2018.

Summary: A spaceship containing American astronaut Robert Calder (William Hopper), some of his dead colleagues, and a fauna specimen from Venus crash into the ocean near a small Sicilian fishing village.  While the fishermen of the village attempt to save Calder and his crew, the capsule containing the Venusian creature (known as the Ymir) is retrieved by a small boy named Pepe (Bart Bradley).  Pepe sells the creature to marine zoologist Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia) and his daughter Marisa (Joan Taylor), who are astounded by the creature–more so when they awaken the next morning to find that the creature has nearly doubled in size.  In virtually no time at all (seriously, it’s like a few minutes in real time), the creature grows large enough escape its cage–and keeps growing as it rampages through the countryside.  It is thus up to Robert Calder to retrieve the creature and bring it to the loving, cattle-prodding arms of Uncle Sam.  Hilarity ensues?

Thoughts: Huh.  I never knew that this film was shown under a second name.  You learn something new everyday.  Or, at least, I do.  I don’t dare speak for you, dear reader(s).

20 Million Miles to Earth is another classic American kaiju film (this time with an alien creature as the giant monster) showcasing Ray Harryhausen’s talents as Willis O’Brien’s stop motion animation protégé.  Unlike the Rhedosaurus, though, the Ymir (which is what the monster is officially names) allows Harryhausen a greater range of emotion to portray through his puppetry due to the creature’s humanoid physiology/physiognomy.  The body language and facial expressions with which Harryhausen’s cotton-and-rubber monster is able to communicate realistic fear, pain, and anger to the audience is truly astounding (even heart-wrenching at times).  The alien’s fight with a stop-motion elephant is one of the most entertaining sequences I’ve ever seen in a film, period.

Oddly enough, setting the story in Italy (specifically, Sicily and Rome) helps make this film so memorable.  Had the story taken place in, say, New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles, or “insert-American-town-here”–I dare say that it would not have been as special of an experience.  Sure, the acting is fine enough: William Hopper (of Perry Mason fame) is stereotypically dashing as the heroic astronaut Robert Calder, and Joan Taylor is stereotypically plucky as the intelligent eye candy Marisa Leonardo.  But it’s the small fishing village where the spaceship is found, and the Coliseum at Rome where the final battle with the Ymir takes place–it’s these that give the film its distinct flavor.  Without the setting, the film would still be solid, but I dare say that it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable.

Conclusion: What saves 20 Million Miles to Earth from being average is Ray Harryhausen’s amazing work with the Ymir and the Italian setting.  The acting is fine, the story is fine, the characters are fine–everything is fine.  But the setting makes the film unique, and the Ymir infuses the action with an emotional range that somehow, some way wasn’t given to the human characters.  Perhaps this is intentional, perhaps not.  Either way, fans of stop motion, giant monsters, atomic era sci-fi, and alien creatures will want to give this one a watch.

And on an unrelated note… I wouldn’t mind seeing the Ymir make an appearance in the Monsterverse (the “catchy” name given to the “new” shared universe of the 2014 Godzilla and 2017 Kong: Skull Island).  The addition of a Harryhausen giant creature would definitely grab my attention.

So, a few things:

First, I still wish the Ymir would show up in the Monsterverse. After seeing some of the new Titans created for Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) and finding myself to be quite impressed with their designs, I would love to see how AmeriKaiju like the Ymir would/could be updated in this new style.

Second, I actually don’t think I gave this movie a fair shake the first time around. There is a lot to love about this film, and there’s almost something about the sympathy one feels for the monster that is reminiscent of Kong. Because it has a face that resembles a primate (unlike the Rhedosaurus and other such AmeriKaiju), it seems it is easy (or easier) for Harryhausen to imbue his puppet with emotion that humans can pick up on a bit more naturally–and so even though the Ymir is a nearly-unstoppable killing machine, the fear of a creature stuck on a planet that isn’t its home with hostile forces that want to kill it and study it (not necessarily in that order) resonates with those of us who can imagine being stranded in a harsh environment. And that seems to be the primary difference between the works of Willis O’Brien and the works of Ray Harryhausen, at least as I’ve experienced them. While Obie’s works are featured in films that are extremely pulpy and somewhat over-the-top, Harryhausen’s works are featured in films that take their fantastic subject matter a bit more “seriously”–as seriously as a giant Venusian space creature can be, anyway. But, yeah, it’s truly about as good as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms upon second viewing. And using Italy as a backdrop is still a stroke of genius.

Finally, just a quick point of trivia: The Ymir is named for a Norse giant whose body was used to create the world. Apparently this giant’s bones are the mountains, his blood is the ocean, his brains are the clouds, etc. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the movie, nor with the creature’s function in the movie. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure the name “Ymir” is ever uttered in the movie at all. So I have no clue as to what possessed Harryhausen to call the creature “Ymir,” but, well, there you have it.

– Randall Malus, 06/20/2019

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