The first spaceship to Venus crash-lands off the coast of Sicily on its return trip but the crew have unknowingly brought an alien egg back with them that hatches and the small creature inside escapes. In no time at all it grows to enormous size and only asserts its physical presence when threatened, which naturally occurs when the military try to stop it from encroaching the city of Rome.
One of special effects legend Ray Harryhausen’s earlier films, 20 Million Miles to Earth would just be any other 50s ‘monster-on-the-loose’ science fiction B-movie if it wasn’t for the presence of his magic. The plot is nothing new if you’re familiar with these 50s films and the film runs like clockwork. In fact most of these 50s sci-fi films have no hidden meanings about atomic testing or space exploration, they’re simply special effects vehicles where a film has simply been constructed around set pieces. Harryhausen’s films are no exception and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone to argue against that. I don’t know of any other artist in Hollywood who has ever dwarfed the rest of the film in such a way as Harryhausen did. Audiences didn’t care for the director or the cast or the story – they’re simply playing second fiddle in these films. They were there to see the master at work and bring to life whatever creatures he had to.
20 Million Miles to Earth is bogged down with the same sort of wobbly scripts, laughable acting and sci-fi jargon that the rest of its 50s brethren were hindered by. Take away Harryhausen’s special effects and you’ve got a rather lacklustre affair which doesn’t really get going until the final third. There’s not an awful lot of interesting plot developments to keep the audience gripped until the creature finally shows itself. There’s cheesy 1950s love plots where you know the only female character will fall in love with the male scientist. Expect token scenes of the military talking about the creature. Recycled scenes of various scientists talking about the creature. Then there are scenes with both the military and scientists talking to each other about the creature. It’s a wonder the audience ever made it to the end of some of these films because they’re dull, talky affairs.
The acting is all square-jawed heroic nonsense. Characters are almost flawless and the way they react to situations is as if they have to deal with alien monsters every day of the week. Speaking of which, the Ymir, the Venusian alien creature, is one of Harryhausen’s most interesting creations, not least because you can see elements of some of his more famous monsters in the mannerisms of the creature (I can see the cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and the Kraken from Clash of the Titans to name but two). It’s these mannerisms and the way in which Harryhausen animates the creature, which makes it more like-like and believable than any of the human actors involved. There is something unique about it which makes you root for the creature – a real sense of humanity and life. He gave all of his creations little characteristics which make them stand head and shoulders above anything else. Marvel at the sight of the small creature hatching out of from its shell and then rubbing its eyes as it struggles to adjust itself to Earth’s atmosphere. Little touches like this make all of the difference. But of course, part of the reason for sympathising with the creature is that the human cast are so dull.
Not only does the creature come alive in glorious detail but it partakes in some impressive set pieces. There’s an engrossing fight between it and an elephant in the streets of Rome and the finale inside the Coliseum is outstanding for it’s time. It’s sort of an alien version of the finale of King Kong where a frightened creature climbs atop an infamous landmark in a futile attempt to stay alive but is shot down in cold blood by the humans below.
Unfortunately all of this happens too late in the film and although the monster is fleetingly glimpsed early on, it’s only the second half of the film in which it really springs to life. Before that time, be prepared to endure a never-ending assault of clichéd characters cheesy dialogue. In one of the film’s most laughable lines, the creature is standing on top of the Coliseum and the hero of the piece looks up and simply states ‘there he is’ as if no one had noticed the gigantic creature climbing on top of one of the world’s most iconic landmarks.
Originality doesn’t seem to be the order of the day for the script, both in dialogue and plot developments. The army runs out of ideas to defeat the monster after trying to blow it away with rudimentary weapons. Will cinematic armed forces ever learn to stop wasting their time with shells and projectile weapons when going up against aliens? Fifty-five years later and you’ve still got daft generals trying to take on extraterrestrial threats with pop guns and tanks!
20 Million Miles to Earth is a decent film for fans of this genre but nothing more as it’s too bogged down with dull exposition. Harryhausen’s special effects deserve better and thankfully he did with his next film – the eternally superb The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.