Before CGI raptors, green-screened bullet-cams, and morphing liquid-metal killing machines, there was Ray Harryhausen. A pioneer in stop-motion animation, Harryhausen held generations of wide-eyed kids within the grasp of his imagination, while his landmark visual effects inspired many of today’s most visionary filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Terry Gilliam, George Lucas, and Tim Burton. Even an '80s kid like me remembers countless Saturday mornings spent soaking up 'Jason and the Argonauts,' 'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad,' and 'Clash of the Titans.'
Harryhausen’s seminal 1957 film '20 Million Miles to Earth' tells a rather simple story about an American spacecraft that crashes off the coast of Sicily after completing an expedition to Venus. The sole survivor is Colonel Robert Calder (William Hooper), an astronaut who's anxious to recover a strange, Venusian egg that was on board the ship. But before he can locate the specimen, a bipedal creature hatches from the egg and begins growing at an alarming rate. With the help of a zoologist named Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia) and a young woman named Marisa (Joan Taylor), Calder rushes to capture the alien before it can do too much damage.
Harryhausen fans are used to settling. Though his visual effects are consistently dazzling, more often than not the work that surrounds them is not. As such, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that '20 Million Miles to Earth' has some major problems. First and foremost, the actors are dreadful. Watching their performances, it's easy to forget they're running from a menacing space beast -- they may as well be running from a giant paper bag. Second of all, the cinematography is flat and unexciting. Finally, the story itself is essentially a tired rehash of every misunderstood monster tale since 'King Kong.'
Still, the amazing thing about Harryhausen's creations is that even fifty years after the fact, they make a film like this worth seeing. Despite its dated stop-motion roots, I marveled at how convincing Harryhausen's monster actually is -- its eyes register genuine emotion, its lips curl in legitimate anger, and its fingers curl in familiar frustration. It even interacts with its surroundings in a more convincing manner than the rest of the cast. '20 Million Miles to Earth' may suffer from terrible performances and stilted filmmaking, but Harryhausen's expressive animation helps to take the sting out of the film's shortcomings.
Taken in the context of its place on the evolutionary ladder of special effects, '20 Million Miles to Earth' is fun and fascinating watch. Though there's probably not enough here for the average moviegoer to sink their teeth into, Harryhausen buffs and ‘50s b-movie fans will eat this one up.
In his audio commentary, Harryhausen reveals that '20 Million Miles to Earth' was originally meant to be shot in color. After budgetary limitations forced the film to be shot in black and white, he says he spent his career wondering what could have been. But in 2007, the technicians at Legend Films set about remastering and colorizing the film under his supervision. While I generally don’t welcome this sort of risky dabbling, at least the set-up in this case is intriguing.
The colorized version of '20 Million Miles to Earth' is presented in 1080p with a commendable AVC MPEG-4 transfer. To my great relief, the colorization process results in a surprisingly natural look. The muted palette isn't garish or overcooked, shadows aren't splotchy, and textures haven't been compromised. I was initially surprised to see how green the creature’s skin appeared, but then who am I to argue with Harryhausen? Skintones come on a little strong and the stop-motion models tend to look plasticized, but generally the image is a good match with other color films of the era. Even better, the source is spotless and stable -- contrast doesn't waver, grain is unobtrusive, and there isn't any noise or edge enhancement to be found.
Purists will be relieved to learn that this Blu-ray edition of '20 Million Miles to Earth' also includes a black and white version of the film encoded in a separate 1080p/AVC transfer. This version is actually the result of the first step in Legend's colorization process and it too handles Harryhausen's creation with respect. The print looks better than it ever has -- the only downsides are that detail can be sketchy at times and the picture's contrast isn't quite as bold as I hoped it would be. Still, the image is clean and stable, a feat that shouldn't go unappreciated.
(Note that as a nifty bonus, you can switch back and forth between the two versions of the film at any point during playback using your player's multi-angle controls.)
A solid Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track (48 kHz/ 16-Bit/ 3.0 Mbps) ensures that '20 Million Miles to Earth' sounds a lot better than you’d expect for a film of its age and budget. Dialogue is clear, sound effects are crisp, and dynamics have been enhanced to introduce clean, low-end rumbles into the mix. I normally don't toss much praise around when it comes to surround tracks that have been remixed from an original mono source, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear a convincing level of rear support during many of the stop-motion sequences. Best of all, the hissing and humming noises of the original recording have been miraculously exorcised from this mix.
All of this is not to say that this track will ever be confused with a more modern mix -- dialogue is generally shallow and sound effects aren't spread across multiple channels at any given time. Of course, anyone expecting the audible power of a modern sci-fi flick probably won't enjoy '20 Million Miles to Earth' in the first place. Overall, while the impact of the audio remix isn't quite as remarkable as the video remastering, the outcome is impressive nonetheless.
(Note that while this Blu-ray edition includes the original mono track in Spanish, it does not feature such a track in English.)
This Blu-ray edition of '20 Million Miles to Earth' includes all of the extensive extras from the 2-disc 50th Anniversary Edition standard DVD, released in July of 2007. Although the material is presented here in standard definition only, the package features a thoroughly enjoyable exploration of the film's creation and preservation.
A stop-motion extravaganza from 1957 may not be everyone's cup of tea, but fans of ‘50s cinema and the legendary work of Ray Harryhausen are sure to appreciate this Blu-ray edition of '20 Million Miles to Earth.' The fifty-year-old film has been given new life with a great transfer, an impressive TrueHD audio track, and an extensive collection of supplements that are incredibly interesting.