Synopsis: An American astronaut (William Hopper) is rescued by fishermen when his ship crash lands in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Sicily. Later that day, a local boy (Bart Braverman) finds a curious organic artifact on the beach and sells it to a visiting zoologist (Frank Puglia) on a trip to Sicily with his granddaughter (Joan Taylor). Soon, the object reveals itself to be an egg, out of which hatches a tiny and strange creature. But the alien doesn’t stay small for long, growing at an incredibly rapid rate. The monster escapes the confines of the zoologist’s cage and flees into the countryside. With the Italian police force on its trail trying to protect humanity and the American Army trying to recover their valuable scientific specimen, what fate awaits this monster on this planet where he was never meant to be?
First of all, sincerest apologies to Nate for the lateness of this review! Dealing with a lot of illness and business ’round these parts, not to mention planning a trip out of town and a possible move out of town after that. I’m going to keep my intro brief so that I actually have some chance of getting this post up before the day is through. 20 Million Miles to Earth was directed by Nathan Juran for Columbia Pictures for the sole purpose of displaying the incredible, jaw-dropping, still-as-of-yet-unparalleled stop-motion animation effects talents of the legendary Ray Harryhausen. While a lot of the film seems quite low-budget, Harryhausen, as always, shocks and awes. Come take a trip with me into this monster movie classic, this B-grade gem, this long long journey… 20 Million Miles to Earth!
Warning: This is a Full Recap review, meaning it includes screencaps and commentary on the film in its entirety. Therefore, it is much longer than a regular review, and spoilers are pretty much guaranteed.
Behold SPAAACE! In GLORIOUS NON-TECHNICOLOR! It’s awfully foggy in space today but I do believe we are looking at the Earth. Is it just me or do you kind of see a creepy skeletal face made out of pieces of North America there? Hudson Bay is the nose, Southampton Island (I think) is the left eye, the Great Lakes form sort of a craggy mouth… Cannot unsee.
We hear a disembodied yet highly authoritative voice: “Great scientific advances are suddenly accomplished facts before most of us are even dimly aware of them. Breathtakingly unexpected, for example, was the searing flash that announced the Atomic Age. Equally unexpected was the next gigantic stride, when Man moved out of his very orbit, to a point more than… TWENTY MILLION MILES… TO EARTH!” I’m no grammartician, but shouldn’t that be twenty million miles from earth?
After an interminable credit sequence in which all we see are clouds and all we hear is a terrible high-pitched mechanical scream, things all of a sudden get downright idyllic.
We see a small fleet of fishing boats, and zoom in on a boat containing two men and a boy. The boy has a rope which he is using to lasso one of the other men. “Pepe! Is it your desire that the fishes, they swim away? C’mon, pull upon the net!” Oh boy. Looks like we all learned our Italian accents at the Olive Garden.
Pepe laments the fact that they have to use so many ropes to catch such small fish, while in Texas they can use one rope to catch a big cow. “Texas, Texas,” the other fisherman responds, “what is that?” “She is a big country across the sea, near America! That’s where the cowboys live.” Ain’t foreigners the wackiest?!? Meanwhile, the silent, sweaty fisherman sees something in the sky.
It’s a rocket, and IT’S HEADED STRAIGHT FOR US!!!
The rocket crash-lands in the ocean and goes KA-BLAMMO, KA-BLOOEY!!! Somehow there is no enormous wave that capsizes all these tiny fishing boats. There’s not even a ripple. Maybe the abolishment of the effects of the physical displacement of water caused by the impact of a large object is one of those “suddenly accomplished facts” we heard about earlier.
The fishermen decide to go investigate. After all, the ship could be filled with dead Mon Calamari, and then they’d be RICH!
There just so happens to be a nice man-sized, water-level hole in the hull of the ship. So. That’s convenient.
Upon entering the ship, the first room they discover is the onboard sauna. Very swanky!
Whoops. Dead guy.
Fortunately, they also find two slightly-alive guys.
The fishermen manage to get the two living astronauts and themselves out of the ship before it sinks completely.
Ohhhh, that Pentagon.
Inside, the very model of a modern Major General is just finishing up his entry into the science fair when he gets a phone call from Sicily about the crash.
Back in Italy, the astronauts have been brought ashore. Why, it’s William Hopper, one of the stars of our last recap!
While the astronauts are whisked off to the hospital and the fishermen are being questioned by the police commissioner, Pepe wanders off and finds something washed up on the beach.
Pepe is then called back to the group before he can further investigate, so he hides the mysterious object behind a rock and runs back to the rest of the villagers. Apparently the regular doctor is too busy delivering somebody’s baby so they ask Pepe where that doctor visiting from Rome is. He lives in a “house on wheels” (a trailer) and Pepe often sells him worthless shellfish. Pepe tells them where the doctor is currently camped.
As soon as the grown-ups are done buggin’ him, Pepe runs back to his hiding place and discovers that the thing that washed up on shore is a cannister.
He opens it to find… this. Ick. Looks like one of those shark eggs you see at the aquarium.
Despite the thing being gross, Pepe wraps it in his coat and takes it home with him, because today, she’s-a his birthday! (No lie, this is the same kid.)
Meanwhile, Short Guy in Hat goes to find the doctor from Rome, who is traveling in Sicily with his American granddaughter. Short Guy explains the urgency of the situation, but the doctor regretfully informs him that he is a doctor of zoology, not a medical doctor, so he wouldn’t be of much help. Fortunately, his granddaughter is a med student! She agrees to do the best she can for the hideously-maimed astronauts.
Pepe gleefully runs up carrying his bundle of joy, but he stops in his tracks when he sees Short Guy.
Short Guy and Lady Doctor leave, and Pepe comes out from hiding. He tries to talk Grandpa Dolittle into buying the mystery object off him. Grandpa is the kind of zoologist who will just leave a tortoise chillin’ on a table, so you know he’s a fun guy.
Before showing Grandpa Dolittle what he has, Pepe makes him promise to give him 200 lire so that he can buy himself a “hat from Texas.” FOREIGNERS!
Grandpa gives Pepe his money, and Pepe drops the Jello egg on the table and bolts out the door. Grandpa is baffled by what he sees.
Meanwhile, over at the hospital, the Hoppernaut awakens to find the pretty Lady Doctor. “I know,” she says, “you want to know where you are. In Gerra.” I’m sure that means a whole lot to a guy who just flew in from space.
She then informs him that everybody else on the ship is dead except for this guy. Can’t read my, no he can’t read my pizza face.
The Hoppernaut jumps out of bed and starts shaking Pizza Face (also known as Dr. Charmin) until he awakens. Charmin asks about the “animal specimen” but the Hoppernaut says he doesn’t know where it is.
Lady Doctor finally insists that the Hoppernaut stop squeezing the Charmin and lie down.
She then leans over Pizza Face and pulls back one of his eyelids. “He’s dead,” she flatly proclaims. You are going to completely fail med school if you think you can take someone’s pulse in their eye.
Later that night, Lady Doctor returns home to find something like so totally grody going on.
Awwwwwwwwww, look! It’s the teeniest, sleepiest monster! Who’s a cutie itty bitty little monster all ready for a nap? You are, yes you are!
Grandpa Dolittle is excited too. He’s never seen anything like this before.
Grandpa grabs the monster and locks it in a cage outside. “It’s so ugly,” Lady Doctor proclaims, gazing at it scornfully. Are we looking at the same monster? He is the CUTEST! Anyway. They leave the monster outside, where it wanders around its cage looking confused and making adorable calls that sound like a combination between whale songs, gibbon vocalizations, and a wagon wheel in need of oil.
The next morning, Grandpa Dolittle discovers that the monster has gone through some changes overnight. Namely, he’s now about twenty times bigger than he was when they found him. Judging from her outfit, Lady Doctor ain’t gonna let no rapid-growth mystery monster keep her from her tennis date.
Grandpa goes to town to find Pepe, but Pepe gets scared and hides. Grandpa decides to take the creature to Rome to show his fellow scientists at the zoo. Meanwhile, the Army arrives. Between this and the spaceship crash, I really don’t think they have any business trying to operate aircraft.
They meet with the Italian officials and talk about important confidentiality stuff in regards to the spacecraft but I am too distracted by the Major General’s magnificent schnozz to pay attention. Looks like everyone in this scene has the same problem. Anyway, the Army reveals that the spaceship crashed on return from a mission to Venus (“Venice?” “NO, VENUS, THE PLANET”) and that it was carrying an animal specimen that they must now hunt down. I looked it up and at its closest orbital position, Venus is actually 23,612,105.3 miles from Earth, which is a little bit more than 20, but I see why they rounded it down. 23 Million 612 Thousand 105.3 Miles to Earth was probably too awkward of a title.
They assume that the specimen is still in its tube in the ship at the bottom of the ocean, so they send out a dive team. This shot’s for the ~ladies~
While the dive team searches, the Major General figures he better ask the fishermen if they saw anything. He mentions a reward of half a million lire if they can provide information that leads to the recovery of the cylinder. Of course, this is when Pepe decides to come forward. He promises to take them to the cylinder if they promise to let him keep his cowboy hat, and of course give him the reward so that he can buy his own “cowboy horse.” Since the Army has no particular need for a young Sicilian boy’s hat, they agree.
So Pepe leads them to the rock where the empty cylinder that once contained the Jello egg still sits. There! Promise fulfilled; money please. They ask Pepe what he did with the thing inside the cylinder; he tells them he sold it to Grandpa Dolittle, who is now on his way to Rome. When asked how the Army will be able to identify Grandpa, one of the fishermen tells them, “He drives a truck with a house that follows like a goat!” Oh those silly, primitive Italians. Anyway. Everybody runs off to hunt down Grandpa and Lady Doctor, while the Major General stays behind and gives Pepe his half-million lire reward. So wait, the General had to convert his American money into lire, then give it to Pepe who’s just going to turn right around and change it back into American dollars to buy a horse in Texas? That seems highly inefficient.
REAR PROJECTOR, AWAY!
Meanwhile, up ahead on the road, Grandpa Dolittle and Lady Doctor pull over to fix the canvas covering the monster’s cage, which has come loose. And then the monster RIPS through the canvas and GRABS Lady Doctor and she goes EEEEEEEEEEWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!
“See ya, suckahs! I’m bustin’ outta this joint!”
Just as the monster runs off into the woods, the Army arrives, which is pretty impressive given that Grandpa and Lady Doctor have been on the road for hours. Grandpa tells the Hoppernaut that the monster is growing rapidly, and is now “nearly as tall as a man!” So he’s just about Mickey Rooney-sized.
Meanwhile, the monster is roaming around the Italian countryside freakin’ out the livestock.
One lone lamb decides to take a stand against this scaly bully. That lamb is so brave! It’s almost as if he doesn’t realize the monster is there at all.
The monster wanders into a barn and starts eating something powdery from some sacks. Ew. Then a dog wanders in and lunges at the monster, which turns out to be a really bad idea.
The farmer comes out and discovers his poor dead dog. Fortunately, before the farmer can investigate further, the Army arrives.
The Hoppernaut then attempts to prod the monster into a cart using a wooden pole. Come on, that never works on “Billy the Exterminator” and it ain’t gonna work here.
The farmer gets a little antsy and decides to stab the monster in the back with a pitchfork. Again, bad idea.
Don’t worry! The monster only critically wounds the farmer, so you can still root for him. Lookit that cute widdle face!
The monster runs off again, and everybody heads back to the trailer to regroup. We learn from Dr. Charmin’s notebook that the creature feeds primarily on sulfur. Eww. Thank goodness this isn’t Smell-o-Vision. The Italian police commissioner chooses this moment to inform the Hoppernaut that their two governments are no longer in cooperation; the monster has already maimed one man and may attack others, so it must be killed, despite its value to science. So now it’s a race between the Italians and the Americans to find the monster.
…Except it’s more just a race back to the police station to talk about it some more. The Hoppernaut explains how he plans to catch the monster: “On Venus, we discovered quite by accident that these creatures are extremely susceptible to electric shock.” Oh. Alright. Isn’t that true of most creatures?
“If we can have two helicopters and a squad of armed paratroopers, we might be able to drop an electrically-charged wire net on the beast!” “A net,” the police commissioner scoffs. He knows a net isn’t nearly as effective without Frankie.
While all the humans are plotting to either kill or capture him, the sweet lil’ monster is getting a drink at the river and not harming a fly.
All of a sudden the Italians sneak up and use a FLAMETHROWER on him. Real humane, guys!
Escaping from the police, the monster decides to de-stress with a nice relaxing sulfur bath.
But then the Americans fly over and drop an electrified soccer net on him, which, to your surprise and mine, totally works.
They take the beast to the zoo in Rome and finally let the press in to see him. I’m kind of obsessed with this lady’s glasses.
The Hoppernaut explains why the creature is growing so fast on our planet when it doesn’t have the same growth rate on Venus: “The Earth’s atmosphere has upset its metabolic rate. The more air it breathes, the more tissue it builds and the bigger it gets.” I’m… I’m pretty sure that’s not how science works.
This random doctor explains why gunfire has no effect on the monster: “This beast has no heart and no lungs. It has instead a network of small tubes throughout its entire body. Hence firearms affect no great damage.” Even the Hoppernaut thinks this is total BS.
Then somehow there’s some sort of electrical accident which causes the power to go out and – surprise! – the creature awakens.
He breaks out into a side yard. He just yearns to be freeeeeeeee!
Meanwhile, this random elephant is also in the side yard. He definitely woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.
Oh yes. That’s right. Your wildest dream is happening. Stop-motion elephant vs. monster fight. BOSS!
The monster pushes the elephant and it just so happens to land on a zookeeper and a photographer. Not sure who gets the blame for that one.
The elephant and the monster decide to take it outside.
This elephant is a real jerk! The monster doesn’t want any trouble, he just doesn’t want to be gored by an (unrealistically large) elephant!
The monster finally defeats the trouble-making elephant. “YEAH! Don’t mess with me! That’s how we roll on Venus!”
This poor monster is getting real sick of this BS. People trying to light him on fire, electrocuting him, sicking enraged elephants on him. ALL HE WANTS IS SOME ROTTEN EGGS, OKAY?!?
The creature really wants to break bread with the humans, but he gets confused by our bizarre earthling expressions and breaks a bridge instead.
Finally the poor thing ends up climbing the Colosseum.
He ain’t goin’ out without a fight.
Tragically, there’s no turning back, and the poor beast is finally destroyed by… bullets, which weren’t supposed to be effective so don’t ask me to explain. A man (don’t ask me who) asks, “Why is it always, always, always so costly for man to move from the present to the future?” I dunno, man. I guess flux capacitor parts are pretty expensive.
Final Thoughts: This is pretty much your prototypical B-grade 1950s monster film; I feel like these guys could’ve written the book on it. Much of the dialog and “science” is utterly hokey, but isn’t that the way we like it? There are a few things that could’ve made this film better – the use of color film, for one, which is not something I usually say. (Of course that doesn’t mean I agree with the film’s recent colorization; I’d much rather my classics stay black and white than suddenly be populated by mauve-colored corpses!) There’s also a subplot involving a romance between the Hoppernaut and Lady Doctor which I never bothered to comment on because it seemed forced and boring. In fact, most of the film not involving the monster is pretty boring; you don’t care what anybody has to say, you just want the creature to come back! There’s also no particular reason why the film is set in Italy other than Harryhausen wanted to vacation there, a historical tidbit I love. The creature and stop-motion effects are truly beautiful, a sure sight to be seen; what buffets them, less so. Still, it’s a neat one, your by-the-book “what will happen if science advances too far?” monster flick, and definitely worth a look.
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) – 3.5/5 stars