Saturday, 3 February 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: 20 Million Miles to Earth (dir. Nathan Juran, 1957)

It's the heart-warming story of a kid who discovers a creature from another world, and the military who blow it to pieces.

One of Ray Harryhausen's 'early, sci fi ones', 20 Million Miles to Earth is really two movies in one - on the one hand, you have a stock alien invasion story directed by Nathan Juran, featuring a cardboard military hero (William Hopper) and his 'not-as-smart-cause-girls-stoopid' female companion (Joan Taylor). On the other hand, you have Harryhausen's humane, empathetic portrayal of the strong but innocent Ymir.

It is easy to read this movie as an indictment against US militarism. After a token period of wanting to imprison and perform tests on the poor creature, the US military's plan switches to 'F*** it, blow everything up'.

Their ethos is summed up in a even a scene where two military bigwigs stress about the thousands of people the Ymir might kill in Rome, before ordering tanks and artillery into the highly populated area.

A few minutes later - as though the filmmakers are in on the joke - there is a sequence which involves soldiers lobbing grenades into a river hoping to kill the Ymir.

In the middle of this nonsense, the Ymir emerges as the most sympathetic character in the movie. Taken from its home, borne into a strange world where it faces nothing but pain and aggression, the Ymir never feels like a true monster.

Influenced by Willis O'Brien's work on King Kong, Ray Harryhausen shared his talent for creating characters that felt more alive and relatable than the humans gawking at them. Giving them emotional reactions and individual tics, incidental characters like the Cyclops (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) or Medusa in Clash of the Titans, who would just be obstacles in other movies, feel fleshed-out - as though they have been interrupted in the middle of their own story to go and deal with these pesky little men who are trying to stir up trouble.

The disparity in empathy for the Ymir and the human cast is a testament to the care and attention to detail that Harryhausen took with his creations. Without him, the Ymir might have just been another monster that needed to be destroyed. By giving it a personality, Harryhausen shifts the movie's centre of gravity.

Harryhausen portrays the Ymir as a innocent naif, trying to figure out how the world works. It never attacks unprovoked, and when it is attacked (by a dog; a farmer; or an elephant) there is no sense of rage, just shock and fear. The sound design also plays a part in this: The Ymir's cries are those of a terrified child, not some malicious alien invader.

Cutting between the bewildered Ymir's plight and the non-nonsense military men tasked with taking it down, 20 Million Miles to Earth develops a strangely moral subtext that the filmmakers may not have intended. Suddenly the men of action who are our 'heroes' come off as trigger-happy hot heads whose only response to the Ymir is to destroy it. Once the Ymir has grown to the size of a dinosaur and the military is running around Rome, blowing up landmarks, the movie starts to feel like Team America: World Police.

At only 79 minutes, 20 Million Miles to Earth moves at a clip, and is never dull. The seams occasionally show, particularly toward the climax - some shoddy back projection; the Ymir changes size several times - but nothing that hurts the viewing experience.

There's one unintentionally funny bit where the sound guy clearly gave up. Our hero tells an Italian officer to "deploy your men". He runs off and it sounds like ten men instead of one. The same foley is used a few seconds later when he does deploy said men.

Without Ray Harryhausen, 20 Million Miles to Earth would be an okay movie that you would probably never need to see. But thanks to Harryhausen's work on the Ymir, the film is far more impactful than it otherwise would be.

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