Saturday, November 24, 2012

Godzilla's Roman Holiday

20 Million Miles to Earth: written by Bob Williams, Christopher Knopf, and Charlotte Knight; directed by Nathan Juran; starring William Hopper (Colonel Calder), Joan Taylor (Marisa Leonardo) and Bart Bradley (Pepe) (1957): One watches this movie for the Ray Harryhausen-directed stop-motion animation, which still has the power to amaze. Actually, it may amaze more now: the creature effects were painstakingly done by hand with models. CGI didn't exist. And Harryhausen (perhaps most famous for his work on the Sinbad movies and Jason and the Argonauts) is in rare form in what was his favourite of all his movies.

A returning American Venus expedition rocket gets hit by a meteor and subsequently crashes off the coast of Sicily. Some intrepid Sicilian fishermen rescue the only two survivors before the ship sinks to the bottom of the ocean. One survivor subsequently dies from the toxic effects of the Venusian atmosphere, but team leader Col. Calder survives. Where's that two-foot-long specimen bottle we brought back from Venus, asks the Colonel?

Alas, annoying fishermen's child Pepe sold the blobby contents of that bottle to a travelling zoology professor and his M.D. daughter in exchange for the money to buy a cowboy hat. I feel like there are hidden depths of symbolism and allegory already at work here. And from that blob hatches a two-foot-tall bipedal lizard creature with a face like a catfish, an Ymir, one of the natives of Venus.

And then the Ymir starts to grow at a rate only slightly slower than the Blob, but with no eating of people. The Ymir gains mass simply by breathing Earth's atmosphere. Frankly, this is something you'd think would excite the scientists, but no one even blinks at this astonishing ability. People in the 1950's were idiots.

While the rest of the movie is solid and workmanlike, the Ymir sequences are terrific. The creature is cleverly integrated into a number of shots of the actors, but it's when he's off on his own that he really shines: fighting a dog, fighting an elephant, climbing the Colosseum, yelling a lot. Our friend the Ymir isn't a naturally hostile fellow, though his colossal growth rate soon threatens Rome. Indeed, unlike King Kong he isn't even interested in eating humans: he prefers elemental sulfur.

So the movie turns into an at-least-partially intentional indictment of man's violence against the unknown. The Ymir is caged, electrocuted, attacked by a dog, attacked by an elephant (!!!), bombed, grenaded, rocketed, gassed, pursued by helicopters, and pretty much given the worst welcome to a planet any creature could have. He even gets a pitchfork stuck in his back by an angry farmer. Honestly, we're approaching the Deliverance category of bad vacations. Thank God he didn't land in the Appalachians.

And all because the U.S. government wants to understand how his lungs filter out Venus' toxic atmosphere so that men can return and strip-mine the place for rare minerals. Oh, allegory, where is thy sting? So far as I can tell, the Ymir just wanted to see the sights of Rome, but while he does tour the Colosseum, he never gets to relax in a sidewalk cafe. Scenes of the soldiers firing rockets, machine guns, and grenades willy-nilly into the Colosseum are unintentionally hilarious. It's like something out of a Michael Bay movie. Or Team America: World Police. Recommended.

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