Sony // 1957 // 82 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // August 10th, 2007
"Why is it always so costly for man to move from the present to the future?"
Some films are born great.
Some films develop greatness over time.
And some films we wouldn't normally give a second thought to get outrageously good DVD releases.
Guess which category 20 Million Miles to Earth fits into?
But this is not a case of a studio throwing a bunch of stuff on a disc just to elevate a second-rate film. Sony's 20 Million Miles to Earth: 50th Anniversary Edition gives us an exhaustive exploration of the film, its creative force, and its genre.
On its way back from Venus, a manned U.S. spacecraft crash lands off the shore of Sicily. Local fishermen are able to rescue two crewmen, including Col. Robert Calder (William Hopper, Perry Mason). When a mysterious glass tube washes up, a young fisherboy finds it. Inside is something that looks like a big piece of sushi. The boy sells the sushi to a local zoologist. That night, the sushi breaks apart, and out pops a tiny creature that looks kinda like a person (it walks upright) and kinda like a reptile. The zoologist cages the little feller, but it grows, eventually breaking free and making its way to the Colosseum in Rome. The Italian police want this ever-expanding monster dead, but the American spacemen want to bring it back alive to study it. As for the creature, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger...
The appeal of this film, and this disc, can be summed up in two words: Ray Harryhausen.
For those who don't know, Harryhausen is the special effects genius whose work with stop-motion animation made him one of the most influential visual-effects artists of all time.
Harryhausen's work was slow and painstaking. Perhaps the most famous segment he ever produced, the fighting skeleton scene from Jason and the Argonauts (1963), was just over three minutes long but took several months to create.
20 Million Miles to Earth does not represent Harryhausen's best work; arguably, that would either be Jason and the Argonauts or The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974). But even lesser Harryhausen is worth seeing, and this double-disc set serves as an excellent tribute to this living legend.
Part of Harryhausen's genius was the way he made so many of his creatures characters in his films. They are monsters, but we somehow empathize with them. In 20 Million Miles, the creature starts out as a hatchling and, while it grows astronomically, it never "matures." It is just a frightened, oversized baby being chased, shot at, and prodded.
While the film may leave a lot to be desired -- it's a standard 50s-era monster-from-space vehicle with bland acting and a script that barely has camp appeal -- the presentation here is phenomenal. We get an exceptional black-and-white image as well as a colorized one; the viewer can toggle between the two using the "angle" button on the remote. This is one of the few instances I've seen where colorizing actually improved the image. The audio is a remastered mono track and is clear and true, with pitch-perfect emphasis on the sound effects used to give voice to the creature.
We get a banquet of extras, beginning with a feature-length commentary with Harryhausen, producer Arnold Kunert, and Oscar-winning visual effects artists Dennis Muren (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and Phil Tippett (Star Wars). The commentary is comfortable, funny, and informative, part anecdote, part MST3K, and part film school.
Disc Two kicks off with "Remembering 20 Million Miles to Earth," a 27-minute feature that gives us Harryhausen discussing his work in the film and comments from directors Terry Gilliam, John Landis, and John Canemaker, and visual effects wizards Rick Baker (who refers to the film as "29 Miles to Earth"), the Chiodo Brothers, and Stan Winston.
An 11-minute feature on the colorization process provides insight into the technology as well as context: Harryhausen would have loved to have shot his films in color, but was often prevented from doing so because of budget and technical considerations. He wholeheartedly approves the colorization of this film.
"Tim Burton Sits Down with Ray Harryhausen" for a 27-minute chat. Burton has long cited Harryhausen as a major influence; in 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas became the first full-length stop-motion animated film. Burton starts out a little stiff and nervous, but both he and Harryhausen relax considerably as the chat goes on. These are clearly two artists who respect and have a fondness for each other. (Trivia: Nightmare Before Christmas was nominated for a visual effects Oscar but lost to Jurassic Park, whose effects team included Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett.)
Given the amount of featurettes and commentary dealing with Harryhausen's work, there is surprisingly little overlap.
Joan Taylor, who plays the nominal love interest in 20 Million Miles, is not exactly a household name, but her recollections of working as a B-movie actress in the '50s are charming. "Mischa Bakaleinikoff: Movie Music's Unsung Hero" gives us a look at the man who wrote many of the "monster themes" (usually just a few chords) for low-budget films. Another feature explores advertising for 20 Million Miles and other such low-budget films. The disc is rounded out with a comic book (20 Million Miles More), galleries including production stills and international ads, and previews for double-disc editions of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal.
Taken on its own terms, my assessment of the film would not be that high. It's a goofy sci-fi movie with an excellently rendered stop-motion monster and a minimally icky romantic subplot. Anyone who grew up with a Creature Features-type program as part of his or her Saturday has almost certainly seen this movie and was probably scared by it at age 7 or 8. Harryhausen seems to have a lot of affection for the creature he made (called "Ymir" in the interviews but not in the movie, the name is too similar to an Arab potentate.) After viewing all the features on this set, I couldn't help but walk away with a better appreciation for the movie.
20 Million Miles to Earth may not be in the same league as such '50s B-movie classics as The Thing or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but this DVD certainly makes a strong case for its inclusion in the canon of well-made low-budget sci-fi films.
For the genre, this disc is as good as anything I've seen. It is also a remarkable tribute to a pioneering artist who, thankfully, is here to participate in it. Highly recommended.
This is how a Special Edition should be done. Not at all guilty.
Review content copyright © 2007 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Feature in Original Black-and-White and Colorized
* Audio Commentary by Ray Harryhausen, Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett, and Arnold Kunert
* Feature: "Remembering 20 Million Miles to Earth" (27:00)
* Feature on the Colorization Process (11:00)
* Tim Burton Interview with Ray Harryhausen (27:00)
* Interview with Actress Joan Taylor (17:30)
* Feature: "Mischa Bakaleinikoff: Movie Music's Unsung Hero" (22:30)
* 20 Million Miles More DVD Comic Book
* Feature on Advertising for 20 Million Miles to Earth and Other B-movies (17:30)
* Photo Galleries
* Official site for Ray Harryhausen