"20 Million Miles to Earth" was directed by Nathan H. Juran, a former Academy Award winner for Best Art Direction for "How Green Was My Valley", but by 1957 had descended into the B-movie territory where his career would end. Juran would go on to direct several other Ray Harryhausen films, and 1958's "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman" - which we'll definitely have to cover on this series. Despite his Academy credentials, I really don't see much talent out of Nathan H. Juran here, since there is very little skill on display, not surprisingly since Juran also made the crapfest known as "The Deadly Mantis". Producing is Harryhausen's long-time collaborator, Charles H. Schneer. William Hopper is the male lead, who is probably best known as being James Dean's father in "Rebel Without a Cause", and really not much else. The leading female is Joan Taylor, an equally unremarkable actress.
I was honestly looking forward to "20 Million Miles to Earth" since I'm always glad to see a monster movie that gives its monster personality and sympathy. But ultimately this movie comes terrible cruel, and not just to the monster, to all animals. Unintentionally they made the humans very ugly characters, and monster lacks the dialog in gesture and voice that King Kong or Mighty Joe Young had, so this is basically a movie without a protagonist. Ray Harryhausen's work is great, but the rest of the movie is awful.
Our film opens with a group of Sicilian stereotypes in the Mediterranean Sea just fishing the day away until suddenly a spaceship a mile-tall crashes into the ocean.
No joke, its as big as a Star Destroyer.
As it turns out, this spaceships is actually American-made and just arrived from Venus after a nightmarish voyage that honestly sounds like a much better movie. I should mention that this movie was made in 1957, and Yuri Gargarin wouldn't even become the first man just to orbit the Earth for another four years. But then again, nobody is watching "20 Million Miles to Earth"* for scientific accuracy. The fishermen and their spunky loudmouth child find only two survivors, one of whom is suffering from what appears to be the early stages of "Tarantula"-style Acromegaly. When they return to shore, the local mafioso** organizes the care of the two men. Soon enough American military officials are on the scene, trying to find out what happened. The little boy, meanwhile, has found a mysterious glass jar within which is a blob of alien flesh. He, being actually the most likable character in this movie, sells the thing to a local Roman veterinarian for two-hundred lira, with which he buys some cowboy gear.
One of the two astronauts dies of his injuries, coming from a weird disease that somehow resulted from the Venusian atmosphere. Apparently no less than eighteen astronauts have died in the journey back, and then just for extra punishment, the spaceship was hit by a meteor and if any others survived the crash, they're now sitting at the bottom of the Mediterranean. If you think the remaining astronaut, Robert Calder (William Hopper) is deserving of much sympathy, don't worry, he's pretty much a huge jerk for the entirety of the film. His love interest is Marisa Leonardo (Joan Taylor), the American granddaughter of the veterinarian, and also a medical student. At first Robert is completely uncooperative with Marisa, not telling her anything about his friend's condition or even if what he's contracted might be infectious. Somehow Marisa finds this unendingly charming, and they spend the remainder of the movie imagining a dark cafe with a burning candle where they can have a first date/metaphor for sex. Robert mostly spends the rest of the movie refusing to feel guilty for anything, and abusing the poor alien.
Speaking of which, the alien fleshy egg hatches, revealing our real star, Ymir. Technically they never give the alien a name, or even use the word "alien" in the whole movie, but "Ymir" is the official name. He's a humanoid scaley green creature that apparently feeds on Sulfur. Ymir isn't an aggressive creature, but he does have the misfortune to grow incredibly fast. Let me explain it the way "20 Million Miles" does: because Earth has less atmosphere than Venus, Ymir's metabolic system is going into overdrive for some reason, and thus he grows to roughly fifteen-feet tall in just his very short month of life. He also apparently does not have lungs or a heart so this somehow means that he cannot be harmed by bullets. Yeah.... This movie doesn't do biology too well either.
All of this is actually very justified.
Pretty quickly Ymir grows too large for Dr. Leonardo to hold onto, and he escapes into Sicily's farms. The US military and a recovered Robert start chasing after him, with intentions to capture him and use his body to learn how to breath Venus' atmosphere for "minerals". Ymir wanders into a barn, where he gets attacked for no reason by a dog. "20 Million Miles to Earth" turns into a pretty horrible movie all at once when Ymir beats the dog to death. I mean, I don't blame Ymir, he's just an alien animal and the dog started it, but still, I hate it when movies kill dogs. Later Robert and a party find Ymir and decide to poke him with a stick until he goes into a cage. Ymir wants none of his, and fights off Robert's attacks, until the local farmer stabs him in the back with a pitchfork. See a pattern here? The alien kills the farmer in front of all the soldiers, who let the farmer die so as not to injure Ymir. Later Robert does capture the alien with an electrified metal net, since the alien is super-weak to electricity.
Ymir is then taken to a zoo in Rome, clearly so that he can be close to a major metropolitan area where he can have a decent giant monster rampage. For the next month, the scientists torture Ymir with electric shocks, keeping him in a catatonic state just below death in order to use his biology to devise a method of solar human colonialism. And then when Ymir escapes, suddenly he's the bad guy just because he crushes a few people. We were fucking torturing this poor alien, jesus. This movie is gross, and it has no gore. And its going to get worse in a moment.
When Ymir smashes out of the lab, he wanders into the elephant pen. The elephant, like all earthlings, decides it wants Ymir dead too. Leading to the most iconic scene of the movie, a Ray Harryhausen creation where the largest land animal fights a giant monster. This is all pretty cool for a bit, until the fight ends like this:
Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwww... How horrible...
The most pathetic part of this is that Harryhausen actually animates the elephant breathing even after its been beaten to the ground. You know the damn thing is probably so crushed that all it can do is lie there and try to breath. And in a minute the zookeeper is going to have to put the poor beast of its misery with a rifle. I suppose I should feel bad for that random jackass Ymir murdered in the previous picture, but humans are expendable in these movies. I really don't like it when movies hurt animals, even stop-motion ones. Or stop-motion alien monsters for that matter.
Ymir, by the way, keeps trying to escape throughout the climax of the movie, and the Earthlings keep antagonizing it. You'd think torturing it for a month would be enough. Ymir tries to flee into the Tiber River, and is forced out by hundreds of hand grenades. He then climbs the Colosseum to get away, and he's murdered by a rocket launcher and a mounted machine gun. The poor creature falls to the Roman avenues below. This time it wasn't Beauty that killed the Beast, it was humans. Dick fucking humans.
If you're a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen, then "20 Million Miles to Earth" will show you some of his great work, having a fully articulated alien running around a major city. There's also some great work inter-splicing falling masonry with living actors. Ymir is definitely one of the more memorable Western giant monsters of the Fifties, being a bit more than just a big form of a normal animal. This is also one of the last movies Ray Harryhausen made exclusively featuring giant monsters, the final one being 1969's "The Valley of Gwangi". By the way, if you want to see giant monsters killing elephants again, "The Valley of Gwangi" will scratch that truly horrible itch for you. You monster. As for me, however, I truly did not enjoy this movie. Why on Earth would you want to watch a movie mainly about an alien - a baby alien - getting its ass kicked by humans? All I know is that now I want to build a doomsday device to blow up this entire awful planet, that way all the poor innocent alien races out there can be saved from our viscous intergalactic imperialism.
Next time on All-Out Giant Monster Attack! - possibly the worst giant monster movie ever made, "The Beginning of the End".
* The shortest distance from the Earth to Venus is about twenty-three million miles. However, despite that title, no part of this movie takes place more than just about a feet above sea level.
** Technically this character is just the "camisario" or police commissioner. But the guy dresses like no cop on the planet and acts like he owns the island, so I've decided he's actually a mafia don.