A few years after creating The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Ray Harryhausen was asked to turn his eyes skyward and create a monster that came twenty million miles to earth. In this 1957 movie, an American ship returns from Venus and crashes off the coast of Italy. The crash has two survivors: an astronaut, Colonel Robert Calder, and an alien specimen that becomes a growing concern.
Initially, Calder cannot find the missing egg, and he queries the rustic and rather stereotypical local fishermen. Eventually, young Pepe, an annoying kid of the sort that would quickly become obligatory in giant monster films, admits that he sold it to the biologist who has been staying nearby with his American-raised daughter.
The egg has hatched, and they are fascinated with the doll-size creature, named the Ymir. Of course, it escapes, and by then they know the truth about its origins. Worse, due to some interaction between Venusian physiology and the terrestrial environment, the Ymir has started growing at a prodigious rate.
After a somewhat scary encounter with a farmer, the beast is captured and placed in a Roman zoo facility for study.1 A convenient power outage allows it to escape, which leads to a fight with an elephant, a rampage through the city, and a showdown with the military. King Kong had the Empire State Building; the Ymir makes its stand at the Colosseum.2
The Ymir makes an impressive alien creature. Sure, it's a glorified bipedal dinosaur with a unique head, but it's far more alien than most SF beasties of the 1950s, and Harryhausen brought it to life with state of the art stop motion animation.
If Harryhausen's monsters still charm, other effects have aged poorly. Some elements look wrong, and would have even in 1957. A very large spaceship crashes into the Mediterranean Sea and makes nary a ripple, much less waves big enough to disturb the small fishing boats nearby. The elephant changes sizes noticeably during its battle with the Ymir. We're told the Ymir has no lungs and does not breathe, and yet Harryhausen has given its chest a clear rising and falling while it rests. Artillery fired at the monster does surprisingly little damage to the surrounding buildings. When something does affect the model buildings, they break and crumble cheesily.
The film focuses on the monster and the battle. Plot developments are both forced and predictable. Dr. Leonardo remains unaware that a ship has crashed a short distance away and become major news, because he has to be unable to connect the mysterious egg to that event. The circumstances that allow the Ymir to escape are completely contrived. The Colonel and the female Doctor initially take a dislike to each other. Guess what happens by the end of the film.
It serves little point to be too critical. The movie accomplishes what it intended to do, and on a limited budget. The Ymir, Kong-like, earns the audience's sympathies. Humans removed it from its natural environment, and it only attacked in defense. 20 Million Miles to Earth also includes some great shots of 1950s Italy. The original audience would have been teenagers at the drive-in movie theater and kids at the Saturday matinée. The filmmakers knew this and took the film fairly seriously anyway, and produced an entertaining little movie. Fifties Sci-Fi cinema did a whole lot worse than 20 Million Miles to Earth.3
The film celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2007 with a special release on DVD and Blu-Ray. This edition includes the original and a new, approved colorized version. The filmmakers originally planned to shoot in colour; their limited budget prohibited it. Other features include a conversation between Harryhausen and Tim Burton.
Director: Nathan Juran
Writers: Charlotte Knight, Christopher Knopf, and Robert Creighton Williams
Effects by Ray Harryhausen
William Hopper as Col. Robert Calder
Joan Taylor as Marisa Leonardo
Frank Pulgia as Dr. Leonardo
Tito Vuolo as Commissoner Charra
Jan Arven as Cantino
Bart Bravernman as Pepe
1. One of the scientists working with the captured Ymir has come from Japan. One imagines that 50s-SF-Japan had many of the leading experts on highly unusual megafauna and its predilection for rampaging through large cities.
2.In real life, the Ymir's last stand came when Harryhausen, always forced to consider budget restrictions, cannibalized the model to make the cyclops-creature for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.
3.Venus, at its closest, is roughly twenty-five million miles from earth.