[box cover]

20 Million Miles to Earth: 50th Anniversary Edition

Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Starring William Hopper and Joan Taylor

Written by Charlotte Knight (story, as Charlott Knight),
Christopher Knopf, and Robert Creighton Williams (as Bob Williams)

Directed by Nathan Juran

Visual Effects by Ray Harryhausen


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


Of all the Rampaging Monster B-movie potboilers from the 1950s, 20 Million Miles to Earth, showcasing the work of stop-motion animation innovator Ray Harryhausen, remains among the most fondly remembered. And rightly so. The quality of Harryhausen's painstaking and detailed genius bringing clay sculptures to vivid life is right there in his Venusian Ymir, a bipedal animal taken from its home and brought to Earth. Because our atmosphere discombobulates its metabolism, the beast grows from the size of a doll to the street-stomping proportions necessary for a destructive rampage through Rome.

Ask a connoisseur to describe this small-c classic popcorn-seller from 1957, and you're likely to get something like this:

An American rocketship crashes into the ocean. It's just returned from Venus. The crew is killed but the captain survives, and he's got this container that contains a weird Gummy-larva egg thing. Inside that is a tiny Venus creature. So this Venus creature — he's called the Ymir even though that word isn't in the movie, but everyone knows he's called the Ymir — kind of hatches and he grows and grows and grows while scaring sheep and people across the Italian countryside. Then he's captured and gets taken to Rome, where the military and the scientists do tests on him. So when he escapes he kicks ass and fights a zoo elephant and climbs to the top of the Colosseum from Gladiator and he's all roaring "Hey, stop shooting at me" while taking bazooka blasts and it's, like, way cool.

Or words to that effect. If the dialogue, lead actor (William Hopper, Hedda's boy), his love interest (generic Joan Taylor), plus assorted central-casting Italian stereotypes are forgotten in the telling, that's understandable. They're utterly forgettable. Sometimes damn dreadful, to be honest. And that's okay, because it's the alone-against-the-world monster that's the star of this show. In the long list of Harryhausen's clay-animated Dynamation creations, the Ymir is many a fan's favorite. Having been influenced profoundly in his youth by Willis O'Brien's pioneering work in 1933's King Kong, Harryhausen — the revered special-effects master craftsman who did it all with tabletop models in his one-man shop — put more than a little Kong into his Ymir. Here's another misunderstood beast that's displaced from its natural home, brought to civilization, caged, shot, and bolted down, after which it breaks free, is hunted by puny humans with big weapons, and makes a last stand atop a famous high-rise landmark.

The Ymir, sort of a giant lizard-Brian Dennehy conglomeration, doesn't possess all the nuanced character that Kong evinced, but it bears enough of Harryhausen's trademark realistic dynamism that you can't watch it getting poked, pitchforked, flame-throwered, manacled, electrode-zapped, and tank-blasted without feeling that it's too bad the poor thing can't take out all those humans with atomic breath or SPCA lawyers.

Even in today's post-Lucas, post-ILM world, the spectacle created by Harryhausen's animation is impressive. Make that especially today. Highlight set-pieces include the creature's birth from a glob of gelatinous goo (the way it rubs its eyes like a newborn child is a prime example of the Harryhausen touch), a moody scene in a darkened barn ("They're not ferocious unless they're provoked," says our jar-headed hero before assaulting the beast with farm implements), the Ymir's de rigueur rampage through a metropolitan street picking up bystanders and overturning cars, the WWF smackdown with the elephant (reminiscent of Kong battling the T-Rex), and its Roman Waterloo.

Guided by producer Charles H. Schneer and nominal director Nathan Juran, who knew where the priorities were, everything else in these 82 minutes is just a thin string to hang the plentiful Ymir scenes on. The script is risible first-draft hokum with leaden dialogue (the sole exception: "You've caught me unprepared; I've been cooking over a hot creature all day"), paper cut-out characters, and an undeveloped love story radiating all the emotional heat of a Mary Worth comic. Coming after such big-budget, well regarded classics as Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still, 20 Million Miles to Earth gave no boost to the development of genre movies. It did, though, further the evolution of Harryhausen's skill and artistry, not to mention his presently exalted position as his films' auteur. It was his final black-and-white film before graduating to his beloved color fantasies such as Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and First Men in the Moon.

A Venusian of a different color

This 2007 two-disc DVD edition celebrates three things. First, of course, is the film's 50th anniversary. In the abundant extras new for this edition, long-time fans such as Tim Burton, John Landis, and Rick Baker remind us how much Harryhausen features such as 20 Million Miles to Earth helped inspire their own later work as filmmakers. (In Burton's stop-motion animation hit, Corpse Bride, notice that the gold plate on the grand piano is engraved with the name "Harryhausen.") Secondly, Harryhausen himself — at age 87, still lively and well-spoken — is a big presence on these discs, from the feature commentary audio track to the featurettes that pay homage to him. Thirdly — meaning lastly, although this DVD's marketing and extras hope you'll believe otherwise — this edition presents a new colorized version of the original black-and-white film. Let's look at that last item first.

This isn't the first time we've seen a vintage black-and-white film colorized via the "cutting-edge patented" technology championed by Legend Films (www.legendfilms.net). Legend's previous DVD releases of House on Haunted Hill, some wartime Sherlock Holmes programmers, and other public-domain "B" favorites left us unimpressed by the touted benefits of colorization. On the other hand, the staff at Legend do seem to be sincere devotees who are dedicated to the films they work on and are mindful of colorization's poor street cred. They do grasp the difference between a low-budget catalogue title that couldn't afford color when it was produced (as in 20 Million Miles to Earth) and the artful untouchables in black-and-white such as Casablanca and Citizen Kane. Although their DVDs promote their colorized versions as the discs' chief reason for existing, they always include a digitally restored version of the original black-and-white film as well.

We're pleased to report that this edition of 20 Million Miles to Earth hasn't changed Legend's generous strategy of including a lovingly cleaned-up restoration of the film's original black-and-white image. Both it and the colorized version are in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16:9 widescreen. Like its colorized cousin, the black-and-white image is a beauty, digitally flossed frame by frame so that only the most minor residual wear is left over. By itself this restored and enhanced original version makes the DVD a worthwhile upgrade if you already own the flat-screen "Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection" DVD that's still in print from 2002. Keep the previous disc for its roster of extras, which are not repeated in this edition, then add this one between the older DVD and your 12" resin model of the Ymir.

However, we continue to be respectfully unimpressed with the alleged virtues as well as the visible results of the colorization process. Yes, on these two discs we're told again and again (and then yet again) that the colorized version comes with the imprimatur of Harryhausen himself, that he was actively involved with the process and that he is personally happy with the results herein. Awesome. Yes, we really do understand that if he'd had the budget to shoot the film originally in color, he would have. And Legend's work here is a step up from what we've seen on previous discs. It's quite good for what it is, consistent and unwavering to a pixel-by-pixel precision even as the Ymir and other newly hued elements move across the screen. The backgrounds (trees, sky, buildings, landscapes, and so on) look okay in their new full-color interpretation. The human skin tones and clothing appear adequately authentic at a casual viewing.

But in too many subtle ways it just does not look like a film that was shot in color, which presumably had been the aim. The star attraction particularly, the monster himself, now a uniform leprechaun green, is less convincing colorized than he was originally. Never before has the mighty Ymir looked more like a tabletop model. Some split-screen, rear-projection, and composite shots that were passable before are now less "realistic" in the colorized version. (It doesn't help that this DVD's version is cleaned so well that it looks like a new print, so any nicks and scratches and other semi-conscious visual reminders that this is an "old" film are gone, making any dated visual effects stand out that much more.)

Plus, when we watch a black-and-white film, we fill in the colors in our minds to whatever extent we need to. It engages us on a subliminal level. For a monster thriller such as 20 Million Miles to Earth, what we imagine the monster "really" looks like adds to the experience. So instead of contributing something useful to our enjoyment of the film, the colorization comes across as something of a diminishment. One more layer of artifice has been added between us and the Ymir, between our imagination and the thrill. In a way, it dumbs down a movie that's no Hitchcock brain-bender to begin with.

That said, Legend Films does what it does expertly. They claim that adding color will introduce the films to a whole new generation of audiences. And while we see a 50-foot-tall pie in the sky there, there's no shame in hoping that they're right — as long as the films in their original form remain respected, even minor but nonetheless valued titles such as this one. Not that Harryhausen's films need a lot of help in the first place, frankly, although his other two Columbia features, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and It Came From Beneath the Sea, are slated for the treatment as well. Because this DVD edition includes the digitally restored black-and-white original, the addition of a colorized version does no harm. The "Chromachoice" feature, which allows you to toggle between the colorized and black-and-white versions with a single remote key-press, is a nifty bonus.

The extras

The value-added features included with this edition try hard to win over the love of Harryhausen's fans. Too hard, occasionally. Like a guy on a first date not confident that we'll like his new suit, this edition works so hard to impress us that the flop sweat is dripping onto the collar. After two discs, all the hard sell and promotional rah-rah and even the earnest fan love is exhausting. Nonetheless, these discs are packed with new material that no appreciator of all things Harryhausen — and 1950s fantasy films in general — should ignore.

First off, the commentary audio track is a trans-Atlantic effort between Harryhausen in London and, in California, visual effects artists Dennis Muren (Wikipedia), Phil Tippett (Wikipedia), and producer Arnold Kunert (IMDB), who is also Harryhausen's agent. Despite the distance between them, the participants were recorded together in real-time via satellite link while viewing the film. It's a lackluster effort and we can wish that Kunert had been a more assertive moderator and that Muren and Tippett had arrived prepared for a feature-length effort. Still, it's always good to hear Harryhausen so upbeat as he reminisces about his productions, and this one's no exception. He dishes some info on individual techniques and innovations, and how he (with his producer and director) achieved their goal against the harsh odds of a limited budget and shooting schedule. Plus, he certainly doesn't mind hearing the fannish enthusiasm from the effects professionals whose livelihoods he had a hand in creating. Muren and Tippett figuratively sit at the master's feet, asking him questions and responding to the film through their own experiences in the field. But that peters out too early, and too often Harryhausen doesn't recall the answer or else demurs with an "I shan't reveal all" cover. Plus Harryhausen and Kunert push the colorization as if they're doing an infomerical. Fans will likely find that this commentary track makes for a sometimes frustrating, marginally worthwhile listen-to-it-once bonus.

Disc Two's extras begin with a new documentary, Remembering 20 Million Miles to Earth (26 minutes). It's your basic talking-heads, and longer and more ardent than it needs to be, but it's worthwhile as joining Harryhausen in their memories and appreciation of the film are Terry Gilliam, Stan Winston, Rick Baker, and John Landis.

Tim Burton Sits Down with Ray Harryhausen (27 mins.) is exactly that. Seated in Harryhausen's London home, Burton is the enthralled fanboy that any of us would be while chatting with the maestro as a colleague and fellow effects-loving genre filmmaker. The flying-saucer props from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers are on the table with them, and Burton's nods to that film in his Mars Attacks! are humbly mentioned. Their informal, off-the-cuff conversation isn't limited to 20 Million Miles and should please anyone who happily imagines him- or herself in Burton's position here.

In the Interview with Joan Taylor (17 mins.), the actress, now 77, gives us a pleasant overview of her varied career and her times starring in this film and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

The Colorization Process is an 11-minute promotional video with Legend Films founder Barry Sandrew and members of his team intercut with Harryhausen telling us about the Legend Films technology in general and their work with Harryhausen in particular. It makes sure that we see Harryhausen sitting with the Legend crew at the colorizing computer, giving his input and blessing to the enterprise. Like the colorizing itself, it's okay for what it is but doesn't add much to the package.

Mischa Bakaleinikoff: Film Music's Unsung Hero (23 mins.) celebrates the often clever work of Columbia's "monster theme" composer, who created (or repurposed) the mood music for 20 Million Miles and other bygone B's such as The Adventures of Captain Africa, Creature with the Atom Brain, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, It Came from Beneath the Sea, and serials featuring Tarzan, Jungle Jim, Lash La Rue, the Three Stooges, Gene Autry, and Dagwood and Blondie.

Other extras here include a click-through sneak peek at an upcoming digital comic book, 20 Million Miles More, a sort-of sequel to the film. Four video Galleries (totaling 35 mins.) cover international advertising and poster art, production photos, PR and production portraits, and Harryhausen's original concept art for the film. Producer Arnold Kunert shows us his collection of Original Ad Art (18 mins.), meaning press kits, lobby cards, and other studio marketing campaign material used for 20 Million Miles to Earth and other Harryhausen films.

—Mark Bourne



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