So far on Monsters Conquer the World I’ve covered a substantial chunk of Eiji Tsuburaya’s work. Tsuburaya is the monster maestro that pioneered Suitmation, giving us a fantastical world of gigantic monsters and heroes portrayed with live actors and scaled sets. So with Tsuburaya kicking ass over in Japan, what was happening in the western world? Did Hollyweird just settle for compositing close-ups of iguanas in with footage of actors? Yeah, sometimes! But also no! When the studios gave a shit (and for whatever reason didn’t want to go with practical props/puppets), that’s where one mister Ray Harryhausen would step in!
Harryhausen, like Tsuburaya, took an established method of visual effects, innovated the bejeezus out of it, created some of the bitchingest sci-fi/fantasy films of the pre-Star Wars era (and a couple post-Star Wars), and inspired entire generations of filmmakers. Harryhausen’s stop-motion animated critters are fucking rad, so this month I’m finally reviewing one of his colossal creations: 20 Million Miles to Earth! The 1957 creature classic is super-duper straight forward, but its bad-ass visuals and even a little bit of soul make it a Harryhausenian slam dunk. Grab some sulfur to snack on and prep your eyes for THE MIRACLE OF DYNAMATION!
Here, nosh on this trailer action!
Like so many trailers past and present, it basically gives you the whole movie, but then again there’s not like, a lot to spoil. The monster isn’t secretly anybody’s dad, nobody was dead all along, and it wasn’t all a dream. It’s King Kong filtered through the conventions of space age sci-fi, and that’s not a good thing… it’s a great thing.
Ray Harryhausen wanted to shoot in color, but Columbia wouldn’t budget for it. That leaves us with a gorgeous black and white monster movie, but Harryhausen himself assisted with a colorization in 2007:
Youtube calls it a trailer, but really it’s just a minute and a half from the first act.
The colorization looks good, visually matching 20 Million Miles with Harryhausen’s full-color fantasies of the 60s and 70s. For the review I watched the original, partly because I consider it the definitive version, and partly because that’s the version I own and I’m a cheap fucker.
The score by Mischa Bakaleinikoff serves the film just fine, but only really grabbed me during the spooky, tension-building moments early on. Unfortunately I couldn’t find an isolated music track online, but some of the really moody, almost abstract organ(?) music I’m talking about is in the trailer. If Mischa’s name looks familiar, it’s probably because he scored several other Harryhausen joints (including It Came from Beneath the Sea and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), and everybody’s favorite flying battleship, The Giant Claw!
Directing is Nathan H. Juran, another Harryhausen collaborator (working together again on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) and serious sci-fi cinema-slinger. Juran started out as an art director on a variety of movies (including the wonderful Jimmy Stewart flick Harvey) before directing killer creature features like The Deadly Mantis, The Brain from Planet Arous, and Attack of the 50 ft. Woman. Terrible pun intended, those are some very big names, and Juran unleashed them ALL (including 20 Million Miles and 7th Voyage of Sinbad) between 1957 and 1958.
The movie opens with dramatic narration over a wobbly galaxy. This soliloquy on humanity blazing into the space age comes complete with a title drop, and most importantly doesn’t drag on forever to fill time, as these things sometimes do.
The movie for real starts, opening on a fishing village in Sicily:
We zero in on the three-person crew of a tiny trawler. They’re likable enough first act throw away characters, complete with hammy Super Mario accents. The kid of the crew Pepe is obsessed with cowboys and cowboy accoutrement. This is cute and pretty funny at first (especially when he describes Texas as a “big country across the sea near America”), but not so much the fifth+ time he starts rambling about cowboy hats or what the fuck ever.
After we get a moment to know these goofballs, there’s an ominous scream coming down from the sky. HOLY SHIT A SPACESHIP!
The actual animation of the crash is a little wonky, but the resulting image is a masterpiece. This is the first of many iconic visuals 20 Million Miles conjures, and it actually pales in comparison to the later stuff. While all of the other people out fishing are like “Yeah nope I’m good time to go home I guess,” the beefy dude in our heroes’ boat convinces his compatriots to go check out the ship and see if they can rescue any survivors.
The interior of the ship is deliciously 50s-errific. We’re four years ahead of the first manned space flight, so the set designers were still completely guessing what spacecraft would look like on the inside. Probably like a spacious radio station/warehouse right? Right! In other movies those sets can look a little lifeless, but since this ship is sinking, we get lots of exciting angles, crumbling debris, smoke and sparks. It’s rad:
Pepe stays back on the boat while the adults hunt for survivors. They manage to find and bring back two dudes and get the fuck out of Dodge right as its heart is about to go on:
The spaceship is a U.S. craft, so it’s not long before the Pentagon bigwigs hear the news and rush to Sicily. When our heroes get back ashore, the adults start questioning one another, tending to the survivors, and basically ignoring Pepe while he fucks off to goof around on the beach.
Pepe then proceeds to open the fucking DANGER TUBE and DUMP OUT THE CONTENTS.
A big gnarly translucent slug glorps out, so naturally Pepe wraps it up and runs off with it(?!). This all seems insane until we realize Pepe plans to pawn it to the local zoologist, Dr. Leonardo (played by Frank Puglia): we learn Pepe has made a nice little side business selling this dude weird sealife. Pepe’s not a dummy with no sense of self-preservation, he’s a gangster-ass hustler that doesn’t give a shit if he’s selling hot product.
I think Dr. Leonardo was expecting more sea urchins or something, because he’s quickly and thoroughly weirded out by Pepe’s latest find.
Pepe, in true hustler fashion, isn’t around to explain himself or the specimen, because he took the money and fucking bolted. The slug jiggles, the music gets really good and weird, and the scene ends on a fantastically foreboding fadeout. Great shit! That night, Dr. Leonardo’s granddaughter Marisa (played by Joan Taylor) comes home and finds a little something waiting for her.
He’s our mon-star, Ymir! Like in Pulgasari, he starts out as a little babby monster and grows over the course of the film. He makes cute, weird little hooting noises before Marisa screams her brains out. Dr. Leonardo wakes up and the two of them manage to wrangle lil’ Ymir and stuff him into a cage outside. The compositing for these scenes is phenomenal. The Doc and Marisa are weirdly nonchalant about the whole thing, even when they see Ymir is nearly man-sized the next morning.
The Doc goes into to town to grill Pepe and ends up there around the same time the Pentagon dudes arrive and meet up with Robert Calder (played by Perry Mason’s William Hopper), the only survivor of the ill-fated rocket ship that kicked off the movie. The other astronaut Pepe and pals rescued died the day before:
Calder, the Pentagon guys (Pentaguys?), and local authorities debrief in a building with a gravel driveway and laundry hanging from it.
We get a nice big exposition dump here: the rocket ship was returning home from Venus and got hit by an asteroid en route. Aboard the ship was a live Venusian animal specimen, which is vital to understanding how humans can survive the harsh conditions of the planet.
We also get a lame “Venus? You must mean Venice!” joke that makes the Italian officials look like dipshits (why would you fly a spaceship to Venice? It’s like 300 ft tall, wouldn’t someone have noticed the skyscraper-sized rocketship landing in Venice?). There’s more weird dialogue as the U.S. general declares “return we must!” to Venus, for “important minerals.” Upon hearing about the asteroid puncturing the spaceship, one Italian official says “Fascinating! Horrible, but fascinating.” I’m sure this all sounded normal (if stilted) in 1957, but it comes across as borderline insane in 2016. But with everybody on the same page, the US and Italian governments set out to work together and recover Ymir.
While the combined American and Italian forces hunt for clues, Dr. Leonardo and Marisa are hauling ass to Rome with Ymir in tow. After Ymir and friends have gotten a solid headstart, the American general finally gets the scoop from Pepe and sends Calder and some dudes after them. Speaking of transporting a space monster on a jankety trailer:
Ymir busts loose! He stalks off into the woods, and the Doc and Marisa are just as blasé about it as ever. Which I guess is a good thing? Spazzing about it wouldn’t really help, but it doesn’t project much urgency. This is when Calder and crew roll up, and he spits a line that would have been right at home in the trailer: “Was it a strange animal, like nothing you’ve ever seen before?!”
The urgency gets torpedoed again, this time by Calder and Marisa trading corny semi-romantic barbs. They’re good looking people so I get why they want to blast each other’s genitals, but WHY DOES NOBODY CARE THAT A FUCKING VENUS MAN-MONSTER IS GETTING AWAY?
Ymir scares the fertilizer out of Old McDonald’s whole entourage before he finds himself inside a barn. When he finds the sacks of sulphur inside, he goes full Montana.
And while the horses, chickens, cows, and sheep are content to let Ymir binge on sulphur, the dog is super not. Ymir bodyslams the sulphur-savvy dog, and our human protagonists finally catch up with our main monster. At first glance Ymir vs. sulphur dog is a huge bummer because he appears to kill the dog, but when the calvary arrives we find out the dog isn’t dead, it’s just fucked up!
And while nobody takes the situation seriously enough, the upside is that they’re super level-headed about everything. Before any clowns can lance Ymir with pitchforks, Calder shouts that the monster has to be taken alive, and that it won’t attack unless its provoked. As a monster movie fan, fucking thank you. It’s refreshing to see somebody be upfront and reasonable about a priceless live specimen. They quickly cook up a pretty sound plan to corral Ymir into a cage, but Ymir is all about not being corralled.
When shit starts to go sideways, Calder has to physically stop somebody from shooting Ymir, giving the farmer a chance to jab the creature with a pitchfork. Things go even more tits-up from here:
It’s an awesomely realized special effects set-piece. Our humans manage to get out of the barn, and it takes all their combined strength to hold the doors shut against Ymir. This just gives Ymir the chance to blast out of a back wall, likely searching for a place where he can eat sulphur
and write poetryunmolested. Calder and Marisa take this opportunity to try and track Ymirflirt grossly, and the Italian authorities (understandably) make it known they’re no longer interested in taking Ymir alive. Calder convinces the Italian bigwigs to give live capture one more chance.
On Venus, Calder and his cohorts had discovered that Ymir’s species is susceptible to electrical attack (which would likely make Ymir a water type, since he doesn’t fly). They cook up a plan to drop electrified nets on Ymir from helicopters.
Meanwhile, the Italian authorities scramble cops, search dogs, and Jesus Christ a guy with a fucking flamethrower:
The plan goes off without a hitch! They kept Ymir distracted with some sweet, sweet sulphur, nailed him with the nets on the first try, staked them down, and zapped his ass with some quickly assembled equipment. With the creature thoroughly zonked, the authorities hold a press conference, debrief the media on Calder’s incredible space expedition, and allow a lucky trio from the press to come and actually observe Ymir in captivity.
Ymir’s being kept in a special lab in Rome’s zoo, and the movie makes sure to show us the nearby elephant exhibits before we go inside.
What we (and the characters) see inside the lab is awesome and even a little shocking: Ymir has gotten enormous since his capture. Harryhausen’s been killing it all movie long, but the subtle detail of Ymir breathing rhythmically under sedation has always stuck with me.
The reporters are given a tour of the facility, and this serves as another little exposition dump. We get info on how Ymir functions, why he’s getting so damn big, how he survives on Venus, and how his unique internal structure makes him particularly resistant to gunfire.
Turns out that instead of having big stupid vulnerable internal organs like us idiots, Ymir’s innards are composed of a series of tubes. This is one of several cool little details that keep this from becoming a dull boardroom scene, but it’s not long before a seemingly random technical fuck-up launches us into 20 Million Miles’ glorious final act. Some vital machinery comes crashing down, the power goes out, Ymir wakes up, and he is so beautifully, perfectly pissed off.
Again, Ymir just can’t catch a break. When he busts out, the nearby elephant actually picks a fight with him instead of vice versa! Just let dude-man eat some fucking sulphur, guys.
As we’ve seen before, Ymir doesn’t normally pick fights, but he sure as shit will end them! This elephant fight breaking out is a total monster movie moneyshot. 20 Million Miles doled out a couple doozies in the first and second act, but from here out there are so many I lost count after the fourth or fifth.
Alien vs. elephant among classic Roman architecture? YES PLEASE.
Calder desperately calls for backup, and we call for more spectacular monster moneyshots!
Let’s really marinate in this: YMIR FUCKING BODYSLAMMED AN ELEPHANT THROUGH A CAR. Just like the fight against the dog, I was bummed for a minute because I thought Ymir murdered a scared animal, but in a shot after Ymir has fucked off, we see the elephant breathing. It appears the elephant survived its scuffle with a goddamn space giant.
In addition to being a huge bad-ass,the elephant looks great. It’s easy to forget that it’s just as much a stop-motion illusion as Ymir. It’s another detail that cements Harryhausen as an absolute special effects super-wizard. I think the only way it could look better is if Harryhausen utilized Go motion‘s trademark blur effects.
Calder tracks our miscreant monster, and the scene he rolls up on is so fucking rad it usually ends up on the posters or the VHS/disc case:
Calder finally takes matters into his own hands and just straight-up crashes his car into Ymir. The visuals don’t quite do the concept justice, but it’s an exciting hero moment for Calder. I always like when puny humans and mammoth monsters deal with each other one on one.
Ymir shambles off and jumps in the river, disappearing almost instantly. Calder and the military grenade the fuck out of the river, forcing Ymir to Kool-Aid Man his way to the Colosseum. Have I mentioned the third act is a breathless gauntlet of spectacular moneyshots yet?
Tanks, flametanks, and bazooka joes give chase. It isn’t long before Ymir finds himself standing atop the Colosseum, hucking huge stone blocks at the army dudes trying to smoke him. Remember how I said 20 Million Miles to Earth is a 50’s re-skin of King Kong?…
Ymir makes a bad-ass last stand dodging bazooka fire, but even he can’t shrug off getting blasted with heavy artillery. Calder wings him with a bazooka round himself, and some serious tank fire finally sends the misunderstood monster tumbling off the wall.
The onlookers, previously whipped into a screaming, panicked frenzy, now look on in shocked, sad silence. Even these randos seem to grasp the full weight of this clusterfuck the moment the chaos has subsided. One of the U.S. officials delivers the final line:
Why is it always, always so costly for Man to move from the present to the future?
It doesn’t have the same punch as King Kong’s “It was beauty killed the beast,” but that makes sense; Ymir isn’t a romantic monster like Kong. Ymir wasn’t chasing a forbidden love, and he wasn’t a king in his world and a slave in ours. In a weird way, Ymir is relatable. He’s born into this world, it’s confusing and scary so he tries to keep to himself, but people hate him for just trying to live his life and survive.
So while the movie is a space-age King Kong tale, Ymir himself is more of a Frankensteinian tragic blank slate. With that type of character you can’t really make a sequel (what would you call it? 20 Million More Miles to Earth? 40 Million Miles to Earth?), but this wasn’t exactly the last we saw of Ymir:
Ignore the wacky and multitudinous bendy-arms, and you’ll recognize Clash of the Titans‘ Kraken as Ymir’s weird sea-faring cousin. Harryhausen created them both, as well as Martian designs for an unmade War of the Worlds adaptation:
Setting the movie in Rome is pretty genius right? With its rich culture and beautiful ruins, it’s a perfect juxtaposition for the pulpy, sci-fi madness of a creature feature, right? Surely this was a calculated story-telling decision? …Nope, Harryhausen pushed for it because he wanted to vacation there, the movie was originally going to take place in Chicago.
Ray Harryhausen brought an entire menagerie of magnificent monsters to life and continued to do so for decades after 20 Million Miles to Earth. His carnivorous creations are so cherished by genre fans, filmmakers and visual effects artists that he still gets shout-outs to this day. Remember the ultra chic sushi restaurant from Monsters Inc.?
Or the piano scene in Corpse Bride?
Flesh Gordon, the infamous soft-porn parody of Flash Gordon, features a stop motion monster that was nicknamed “Nesuahyrrah”(spell it backwards!) during production. More mainstream movies like Army of Darkness and (the much less-loved) Cabin Boy are pretty much feature-length love letters to Harryhausen’s films (especially his fantasies).
Joe Dante, John Lasseter, Edgar Wright, Terry Gilliam, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Tim Burton, George Lucas, and John Landis all count Harryhausen as a major influence on their work. You might recognize those names: it’s all the guys who made all the things. They’ve all got wonderful things to say about the legendary creature creator, but Wright might have my favorite quote: “He was the man who made me believe in monsters.” I can’t imagine higher praise than that. I want to close with one more quote though, this time from Ray himself:
The cinema was made for fantasy, rather than normal types of stories, mundane stories. It gives you a feeling of wonder, for one thing, it gives you stimulation of the imagination, and I think adults like fantasy as well as children. Most people feel it’s rather childish to have an imagination. I don’t agree with that. I think you should go through life and imagine the very best.