20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
Welcome everyone. It is time, once again, to step back in time and visit an earlier era. An era known as the 1950’s. It was a time when B-movies were made very differently compared to today. The special effects may be considered primitive nowadays, but they were an earlier stepping stone of today’s special effects. Hopefully, everyone here has an appreciation for the time period and will view today’s subject with an open mind. And today’s subject is “20 Million Miles to Earth” from 1957.
The five previous visits through time introduced us to B-movies featuring a giant lizard and giant octopus, as well as alien invasion films inspired by the scary climate brought on the cold war. The most recent trip introduced a B-movie that thought smaller and wished to show off a smaller monster. After two particularly outstanding B-movies with giant monsters, how many more giant monsters can man endure before getting bored? And it must be said, there was also “Godzilla” which was inspired by that giant lizard. The alien invasion films, some good and some mediorce, did their jobs and offered more variety in the genre. And in this regard, “The Day The Earth Stood Still” must be considered. It was made before the two alien invasion films previously covered on this enterprise. Only a handful or two B-movies have been covered so far by this enterprise, and we made sure to show you the best and more popularly well known films. Believe us, there were many more B-movies concerning giant monsters and alien invasions, and a lot of them were terrible and uninspired copycats. They were made by less talented filmmakers, and they were not in a position to hire the gifted Ray Harryhausen to provide acceptable special effects. And by now, you must know that Ray Harryhausen provided his services for giant monsters and one alien invasion.
Back to the main point. The most recent trip through time was “The Monster That Challenged the World” from the same year as this one. It had a big title to get your attention, but it had a smaller monster. It featured over-sized mollusk creatures which had the potential to offer something different. However, it fell short and did not live up to its epic title. There is nothing wrong with a smaller monster to provide the thrills. After enough giant monsters, one expects something a little different. And thankfully, “20 Million Miles to Earth” shows how do it properly. Not only that, its monster was created by Ray Harryhausen. So, you know it’s going to be the real deal.
The setting is Jetta, a Sicilian village in Italy, where a spacecraft crashes into the Meditteranean Sea. No, it is not an alien craft and another alien invasion. It turns out that, by the 1950’s, the people at NASA have launched man far into outer space and as far the planet Venus. My gosh, how visionaries back then saw that far into the future. They even saw themselves in flying cars. And yet, by 2012, we have only been successful in launching space pods beyond the moon to take pictures of our neighboring planets. In some ways, we have evolved very far from the 1950’s. But in turn, the fictional characters in these movies might look at us now and think we’re pathetic. They have their flying cars, and we have our mobile phones and iTechnology products with far too many features that are dehumanizing us. Personally, I would rather have a flying car than a cell phone that can pin-point my exact location on Earth. Anyway, two of the astronauts survive the return trip to Earth. On the way back, something went wrong. A meteor collided with their spacecraft, and they were damn lucky that it remained in one piece. However, only one astronaut remains alive in the aftermath and it is Colonel Bob Calder. And he knows that there was a threat on their spacecraft, which has sunk to the bottom of the sea.
That threat was a sealed metal container holding an alien substance. A foolish boy named Pepe was a witness to the rescue of the two astronauts. And yet, when he discovers the metal container along the beach, he deliberately hides it. He wishes to give it to a scientist visiting their region for a price. Pepe is in it for personal gain so that he can buy a gun, the kind tough guys use across the ocean in a country known as Texas. Bless this foolish and uneducated little boy’s heart. You can call him a stupid kid who doesn’t know better, or you can call it a plot device to keep the monster out the military’s hands. I choose to call him an inconsiderate brat. That visiting scientist is Dr. Leonardo. He indeed accepts the glob of substance that is alien to him. He specializes in animals and initially considers it marine life. With news of the spacecraft plunging into the sea, he never considers the obvious answer. Or he has, but is aware of the plot device he is trapped in and is waiting for the military to catch up.
In the meantime, Dr. Leonardo’s granddaughter, Marisa, is on the verge of becoming a doctor of medicine. She isn’t done medical school yet, but she offers to help the two astronauts who survived. One of them dies, and there was nothing she could have done. The other astronaut, Bob Calder, is fine. He has a broken arm. Remember, he knows about that sealed container with the space substance. He is more concerned over his fellow astronaut, Dr. Sharman, because he is a scientist and knew there was something to that space glob. Dr. Sharman’s face is also deformed and scarred. Did he get some of that space glob on him? Dr. Sharman dies, but Bob is left with his notebook to help them out. Marisa doesn’t know what to make of Bob. She isn’t aware of what is going on and finds him to be cold. In turn, he takes her to be a nurse and later on mocks her as “almost a doctor.” You must know where this is going. They are both attractive people within the same age group, so they must be romantically connected by the end of the movie. Once again, there is another forced romance angle in a science-fiction film. To be fair, the romance angle is not pushed very far it and doesn’t take up much time away from the monster.
As for the monster, the space glob softens up and reveals quite a creature. It has the body of a lizard and the head of a walrus. It stands upright and is only a foot tall at first. Over time, it grows bigger. Earth’s atmosphere has an overwhelming effect on it and it grows to be much taller before the movie is over. Earth’s atmosphere also enables it to be stronger. You cannot shoot it with plain guns. It is an animal species from another planet with a very different biology. The creature is eventually big enough to escape from Dr. Leonardo and get away. He and Marisa are traveling by truck and trailer, and are on their way to Rome. There is usually a famous city ravaged by the monster in these movies and it is indeed Rome on this occasion. After destroying enough famous cities in the Unites States, one in Europe is a welcome change. The whole setting in Italy is nice vacation for the viewers.
There is one crucial difference about this monster from the others. It is just as scared of earthlings as they are of it. It doesn’t want to be on Earth; it would rather be home on Venus. Although there is a language barrier between it and the humans, they do come to realize that it is not a deliberate threat. It is others that provoke it first. And unfortunately, there is no way to reach out to it. After it escapes, there is some action in a barn and in the woods. It is captured and brought to Rome for the big finale. Unlike the previously reviewed monster movies, we don’t wait too long before getting some action. We waited for those monsters to do their dance and the outcome was worth it. Here, the creature is revealed before a half hour is up and there is good deal of action in the second act. And there is some impressive action in the third act. This man-sized creature has direct action with humans and the effort of the cast to make it believable is a good one. Later on, when it has grown to about fifteen to fifty feet tall, it tears up famous landmarks in Rome. I say fifteen to fifty feet because, at some points, there are inconsistencies with just how large it is. The movie is not perfect, and neither is the creature, but it must be pointed out. At a certain point, the creature fights with an elephant. And at another point, it is noticeably larger and knocking over ancient structures. However, other movie monsters have suffered from the same problems. For the sheer spectacle, this is forgivable.
If it were not Ray Harryhausen, the monster and all the action wouldn’t look as good. As always, he meticulously works with animated stop-motion effects and rear-projection footage. In the beginning, it is the spacecraft that plunges into the sea that first sells you. It, too, is a stop-motion effect. Both it and the rear-projection footage are used to their fullest to make you almost believe what is happening on screen. This dated and practical effect remains amazing, at least to me, because so much work went into it. That is not to say that no work goes into the best computer-generated effects today. Practical effects are simply different from CGI. It is the poor effects in those crappy Syfy channel movies that make the dated effects in this film stand out so well. The stop-motion effects and rear-projection footage applies to the remainder of the movie with the creature. And in full effect, it is breath-taking. What is really amazing is when it battles an elephant. At times, there is footage of a real elephant. At other times, it is an animated elephant. You have not seen everything until you’ve seen this. The consistent action in the second and third acts meant that it was up to Harryhausen to create more effects work than demanded in previous monster movies. He committed all that extra time and effort to make it work, and it couldn’t have paid off better. The creature moves about very delicately and realistically.
This particular B-movie was a pet project for Ray Harryhausen. He has a fondness for “King Kong,” and this was modeled after it. “King Kong” concluded tragically and so does “20 Million Miles to Earth.” And at the end, after all the fantastic action, I have to say that the movie left me with a cold feeling. Harryhausen was intent on ending it on a tragic note and with social commentary concerning mankind’s treatment towards animals. I understand that sentiment, but I also can’t help but wonder if it should have departed from the “King Kong” ending and traditional monster movie ending. This is a B-movie with a smaller and sympathetic monster, and I feel like he and filmmakers could have tried something - anything – a little bit differently in the climax. But as it stands, they conclude the film the way they intended, and that is that. In the end, it is especially well-made, is a thrill to watch, and it still shows how to get the job done. Compared to a lot of supposedly awful B-movies in the same time period, this is a well-directed and well-acted example of a proper monster movie.
*** out of 4
Those crazy folks at Full Moon are at it again. Tim Thomerson, from the “Trancers” series, plays a cool and a confident detective on another planet. When he chases after his arch-nemesis through outer space and winds up on Earth…he is revealed to be only thirteen inches tall on our world. He finds himself in the middle of gang war tearing the Bronx apart. He helps out the good people, while his arch-nemesis helps out a local gang. To its benefit, there is a little bit of social commentary concerning the gang wars and “the man” who might not care about those struggling to scrape by in the neighborhood. The special effects to make Tim Thomerson are appear smaller are not perfect, but they serve their purpose. This is typical Full Moon entertainment that is stupid, silly and harmless fun.
**1/2 out of 4
Demonic Toys (1992)
A shoot-out leads a policewoman and two criminals into a warehouse with overstocked toys. There, a ghostly presence is awakened and takes possession of various toys – prominently a jack-in-the-box, a teddy bear and a baby doll. The baby doll has a foul mouth, but only succeeds in proving how subtle and experienced Brad Dourif’s performance is as a certain Good Guy doll. Leave it to Full Moon to resort defaming the reputations of childhood’s most beloved play things. The usual puppet and technical creations are present, and so is a fantasy theme, a little bit of stop-motion effects, and thin premise mercilessly dragged out to nearly 80 minutes. This effort by Full Moon is extremely lame and uninspired. It is beyond silly. After “Dolls” and the launch of the “Puppet Master” series, this feels like one journey too many to the well.
*1/2 out of 4