I had not seen this movie for nearly twenty years until I bought it on VC, and I was astonished at how well I remembered the plot. The special effects by Ray Harryhausen are still second to none. In fact, Harryhausen's genius brought in a final subtext. His ability to make the creature bounce and move gave it a personality that I immediately connected to King Kong. Both were creatures that ruled their respective home planets. Both were neither evil nor amoral. They simply acted in accordance to a nature that humanity refused to acknowledge. And both sought higher ground at the end with each trumpeting out a final roar of defiance before overwhelming military might. The emotions that well up in the one's heart as he sees what happens when strong and independent animals clash against man and his infinitely confusing artificial laws leave one with the unsettling notion that perhaps there really are Things Man Is Not Supposed to Know. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH says this as well as any film can.
Harryhausen had originally developed a story about the frost giant Ymir from Norse mythology. He then changed the creature to a cyclops-satyr mix from another planet who rampages on modern Earth, but still kept the name Ymir. (The Cyclops-satyr would later show up in "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.") When the film finally went before the cameras, the Ymir had become a humanoid-reptilian beast from Venus. Brought to Earth in a crashed rocket, the Ymir emerges as only a few inches high, but starts growing rapidly in the Earth's atmosphere. Originally peaceful, the Ymir is provoked into violence by frightened humans. The movie climaxes in Rome when the captive Ymir bursts loose and starts smashing famous monuments in the Eternal City.
The parallels to King Kong are obvious, and Harryhausen intended the Ymir to also be a sympathetic, misunderstood creature. He succeeded grandly: "20 Millions Miles to Earth" is Harryhausen's best early film. The direction from Nathan Juran and the human actors are perfunctory and clichéd, but the effects are still stunning today, and the Ymir is a superb actor. Designed along human lines, but with dinosaur features, the Ymir elicits strong emotions and exudes tremendous personality. The scene of it hatching from its 'pod' (made of gelatin) and exploring the strange world around it for the first time is one of the high points of Harryhausen's career, and a sequence of which he rightly feels great pride. The scene of the full-sized, fifteen-foot Ymir wrestling an elephant (also animated) is also a stunning piece of work.
(Harryhausen's love of the Ymir extended to late in his career. In his last film, "The Clash of the Titans," he used the Ymir as the basis for the design of the multiple-armed monster the Kraken -- the heads and bodies are almost the same.)
The DVD presents the film in widescreen format for the first time since its theatrical release. The image is crystal clear and lets Harryhausen's work shine. There are a few extras. "The Harryhausen Chronicles," a lengthy documentary, does an excellent overview of the man's career. This same documentary appears on most of Columbia's Harryhausen DVDs, so if you're a fan of the animator you've probably seen this before. Also included is a vintage featurette about the animation process, called "This is Dynamation." It was made for the release of "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad," so it actually has nothing to do with "20 Million Miles to Earth."
This is a must-have DVD for any Harryhausen fan and any admirer of 50s science fiction. It's one of the highlights of giant monster cinema.
Meanwhile, Pepe, a boy from the local fishing village who drams of earning 200 lire to buy a cowboy hat, discovers a strange egg, which he promptly sells to Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia). The small creature grows rapidly and eventually attains a heigh of 20 feet as it starts cutting a path of destruction through the streets of the Eternal City. Fortunately Colonel Caulder is around to offer helpful exposition (apparently the crew discovered you cannot breathe on Venus, but only after many of them stopped dropping dead), but the film comes down to Harryhausen's special effects with the Ymir and the pathos he creates for the creatures who is stranded on a planet millions and millions of miles from home (think King Kong with scales). This is mainly because every time the action focuses on the humans the dumb dialogue really starts to get to you. Still, it is nice to go back to those good old days when a couple of American military officers could throw around a bunch of lire and do what they want in a foreign country where everybody apparently understands English if they are not actually speaking the language. "20 Million Miles to Earth" is pure B-movie entertainment, owing all of its success entirely to Harryhausen's stop motion animation with the Ymir, because you will end up rolling your eyes at just about everything else in this 1957 film (unless, of course, you have yet to hit puberty and are inclined to giggle at the insipid romance between the astronaut and the almost doctor).
Finally, boys and girls, let us consider the scientific validity of the title. Is Venus 20 million miles from earth? Well, Venus is 67 million miles from the sun and the Earth is 93 million miles from the sun. So that is a difference of 26 million miles, BUT that assumes the two planets are on the same side of the sun and on the same plane and all sorts of other fun things. At any given moment the planets could be anywhere from 26 million to 160 million miles away from each other. But would a title "26 to 160 Million Miles From Earth" really work? I think not.