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Reviews: Earth vs. The Flying Saucers & 20 Million Miles to Earth

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For those of you who saw Spy Kids 2 (You know the one: It wasn’t as good at 1 but was leaps and bounds above 3), you might have gotten your biggest kick out of all the creatures that lived on the Island of Lost Dreams. When director Robert Rodriguez created them, he was doing a sincere homage to the works of stop-motion innovator Ray Harryhausen. Ray’s legacy has earned him fans across the generations who continue to honor him in current films (thus the name of the restaurant “Harryhausen’s” in Monster’s Inc.). They speak to the inner kid in all of us.

Even in the minor B-films of the 50’s, his work stands out as of that done by a grand master at his art. Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles to Earth share a lot of traits in addition to both being worked on by Harryhausen. Both were produced by Charles H. Schneer. Both have Thomas Henry Browne and John Zaremba in supporting roles (playing the military brass and the scientist, respectively). Both even have actress Joan Taylor in the female lead role. Both also have ponderous opening narration and extras reacting badly to the fantastic effects they can’t see. There are some differences to point out, though.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the plots yet, and that’s on purpose. Being cheesy 50’s sci-fi films, the plot is besides the point, sometimes blatantly so. For the record, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is pretty much exactly that. There are neato story developments concerning battery operated tape recorders and universal translators, but otherwise it concerns blowing stuff up really good. The aliens themselves are kind of goofy looking in their incredibly rigid spacesuits, but the saucers are more impressive as their simple design and the clean B&W photography shows them off to great effect. We also get to see them destroy historic buildings via sonic rays and, later, by falling out of the sky and plowing into them. Harryhausen has actually said this was his least favorite film. I can see why, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable way to pass an afternoon.

The plot of 20 Million Miles to Earth is slightly more complicated. A secret American spacecraft has crash landed near Sicily after a long visit to Venus. With it is a native Venusian creature that the U.S. government needs recovered from the crash in order to further their knowledge of Venus. The creature escapes, and both the American and Italian authorities are in pursuit. The creature, which bears some similarities to the Gorgon at the end of Clash of the Titans, is a fully articulated humanoid lizard, complete with tail. As with many other of his creations, there is great effort to imbue this one with a personality: A lost, confused soul in a strange landscape. The Americans attempt to protect it from the Italians, who want the dangerous creature dead. Near the end, after it goes on a rampage culminating with the Coliseum in Rome, its death sentence is assured. One doesn’t have to look far into this film to see how much King Kong influenced Harryhausen when he first saw it as a young boy.

The finales, ultimately, are the most significant similarity between the two films. Both end with finely done flourishes, using the historic monuments of Washington DC and Rome as the final stage. The spectacle remains a strong presence in film history that can stand alongside the very best in CGI for inspiring awe and wonder. They serve as the perfect emblem for 1950’s Saturday matinees and the joy of sitting in a cool darkened theater with a bowl of popcorn and ice cold cola. From the dinosaurs of Harryhausen to the dinosaurs of Spielberg, nothing can beat that feeling.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers – Six out of Ten
20 Million Miles to Earth – Seven out of Ten

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About Alonzo Mosley (FBI)

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Near Sicily? What a missed opportunity? They could have had the ship crash near Venice! It would have been an epic struggle: Venusian vs Venetian.

    Great review!

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    You start off calling them 50s B-movies (when 20 Million was not), then praise and analyze them later, even after calling them cheesy. I’m lost.

    20 Million is one of my faves from the era, right up there with Beast from 20,000 and Them. To call it a B-movie is a cheap shot at the films. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s a B flick.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    “A bowl of popcorn and ice cold cola”? Wouldn’t your popcorn get soggy? Or was this high-tech ’50s popcorn that stayed crispy in cola, but was later banned after it was linked to cancer in lab rats?

    Sorry, I can never resist the inadvertent absurdities of language.

    Informative reviews of influential classics, overall.

  • http://acrentropy.blogspot.com Alonzo Mosley (FBI)

    To Matt Paprocki:

    Being cheesy and being enjoyable are not mutually exclusive concepts, as far as I know.

    As for the specifics of my description, they did both come out of the fifties. As for the “B-Movie” monicker, no, I never meant to imply that just because something is old, makes it a B-Movie. The specific history of that term was for smaller, cheaply produced genre films with lesser known stars that would be shown as the second part of a double feature. These two films could very well fall into that category, which is why I used it.

    If you want to go into specifics as to whether these two films took “B List” billing to other “A List” films and were, therefore, literally “B Films” I can’t debate you on that point. I have no resource that I can consult that gives their designations when shown in theaters. And if you know of one available for free online, then please let me know. I’m still in the process of builidng (gratuitous plug alert) a
    web directory
    !

    My description was never meant to be a cheap shot. I enjoyed both films when I first watched them (ideally enough) on a Saturday afternoon last September. It’s all good stuff.

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    Being cheesy and being enjoyable are not mutually exclusive concepts, as far as I know.

    If anyone knows that, it’s me. I understand that, but calling Harryhausen’s stuff cheesy is just wrong. Given the era, this is high quality stuff, right up there with the best the era has to offer. If you want cheesy, look at Radar Men from the Moon or the Giant Gila Monster (*shudder*).

    The specific history of that term was for smaller, cheaply produced genre films with lesser known stars that would be shown as the second part of a double feature. These two films could very well fall into that category, which is why I used it.

    I know what a B movie is, but definitely not a B for 20 Million. Earth Vs… I’m not sure. That was one of Harryhausen’s lower budgeted pieces. It Came from Beneath the Sea is in the latters realm too.

    I’ve tried to find some online stuff about 20 Million, then I checked my laserdisc copy. It opened in July 1957. The jacket nor the included trailer make any mention of it opening with another film. That’s the best proof I can get for you.

  • http://acrentropy.blogspot.com Alonzo Mosley (FBI)

    I meant no offense with the term. If it is indeed a grossly inaccurate term to use for these particular films, then I do apologize for using it.