Monday, September 20, 2004

Reviews: "Earth vs. The Flying Saucers" (1956) and "20 Million Miles to Earth" (1957)

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. His 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, it's 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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