20 Million Miles From Earth (1957) would be just one more instantly forgettable 50s b-movie if it wasn’t for the wonderfully engaging model work of special effects genius, Harry Harryhausen.

What do you call a movie where the most expressive, intelligent and emotionally engaging character is a lump of clay?
That’s easy, this must be a Ray Harryhausen flick.

What is 20 Million Miles to Earth?
Venus. More or less. Actually Venus never gets closer than 25 million miles to Earth, but that’s Hollywood. The first American mission to Venus ends in disaster as the ship crashes into the Mediterranean. A strange piece of wreckage is found by a young boy and delivered to a touring biologist. Soon, a creature has hatched and is growing faster than the national
debt of Argentina.

So far, so typical fifties’ monster movie, why is this DVD worth buying?
Well it is a typical monster movie and it was made in 1957. But Ray Harryhausen
made the monster so, from the time it emerges blinking and confused until the final struggle in Rome’s Coliseum it engages the viewer in a way that is beyond any of the actors in the film.

Highlights include the struggle in the barn and the fantastic battle through a Roman
zoo with a clay elephant. Proof that, no matter what the technology, it is artistic
imagination that really matters when creating imagery on the big screen. The DVD features a superb documentary (from 1997) on Ray Harryhausen and his life’s work. It includes a lengthy, and fascinating, discussion with Harryhausen himself and with his lifelong friend, Ray Bradbury plus unseen clips of Harryhausen’s early works – one of which was “Evolution”, an attempt to show the whole of the planet’s history using stopmotion effects. It is clear he never lacked ambition but…

There’s a “but”?
Well, yes. There is always a “but” with Ray Harryhausen’s films. If only once the man
had been able to work on a film where the other creative aspects matched his own ability then, well, that movie would have been a genuine masterpiece. As it is, this film is stuck with the usual mediocre plot, weak script and plodding acting. And the dumbest moral in movie history.

Why does the film have a moral?
This is a King Kong rip-off, someone has to say something profound at the end.

What do they say?
“Why is it always, always, so costly for man to move from the present to the future.”

What’s dumb about that? It sounds quite thoughtful.
It’s dumb because the alien is dragged from it’s home, locked in a cage, attacked by a dog, poked with a stick, stabbed in the back with a pitchfork, shot, burned, probed,  electrocuted, attacked by an elephant, shot at some more, bombed and killed by a tank.  And then the watching scientist has the nerve to complain how tough things have been for
man. What about the monster?

Any interesting facts from the documentary?
Loads. Try this. During the seven-skeletonscene in Jason and the Argonauts Harryhausen managed to animate only 13 frames (half a second) a day.

(Originally published in Matrix 159, Jan/Feb 2002)

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