Monday, 13 August 2012

The trouble with introducing alien fauna into ecosystems unable to cope with them

As the sad and embittered regular readers of this shit will know, I am a big fan of 1950s science-fiction films. Particularly the ones with monsters in them. Because monsters are a peril we all must face at some point in our lives, or perhaps not.

So I was excited to note that Film4 had a film on this morning called 20 Million Miles to Earth. It had no write up in the Radio Times except to say it was a sci-fi horror and it was made in 1957. I like those odds. Upon looking it up on IMDb, I read the following:
The first U.S. spaceship to Venus crash-lands off the coast of Sicily on its return trip. A dangerous, lizard-like creature comes with it and quickly grows gigantic.
I love those odds.

So yeah, I watched it. How could I not? How could anyone not? Maybe it was the old Chewits adverts from the 1980s making me love monster films. But I actually suspect the root cause of my love of 1950s science-fiction films is that they are all strongly allegorical fables about the danger of progress, of the cold war and of the nuclear arms race. In many ways they were a coping mechanism for people, a way to help adjust to the new realities of the world and the scientific, philosophical and ideological challenges that, whether we liked it or not, everyone had to face. Plus they had spaceships and monsters and that in them.

Fresh from the Tiber to your ass

20 Million Miles to Earth is a little different in that regard. Spaceships and monsters were, thankfully, present and correct. But there's no real message in the film, save for its magnificently vague final line: " Why is it always, always, so costly for man to move from the present to the future?"

As questions go, this isn't the most hard-hitting one that the Cold War threw forward. Progress comes in many forms. Just go to Lakeland. There's spray-on cooking oil and things for opening cans that five years ago you could never even have dreamed of, but it's unlikely that the cost of these great leaps forward can be measured in human lives. Perhaps a little of the meaning was more culturally implicit and understood at the time the film was released. After all, it came out in the same year that the Soviets launched Sputnik. Could we be meddling in forces we don't understand? Was the nascent space race inherently bad? Were giant lizards an inevitable consequence of man's insatiable quest for knowledge and discovery?

But I'm not even sure if that is the case. I rather think I may be searching for reasons and justifications where there are none, which rather smacks of historical revisionism. But what can I say? I have a Media Studies 'A' level.

The spaceships and monsters are the best part. There's no doubt about that. The hokier the effects the better, too. But the shortcomings of the special effects technology available at the time can always be circumvented with skilful editing and good acting. Unfortunately, in 20 Million Miles to Earth both of these things suck. They suck balls. Smelly balls. Luckily, the monster effects were done by the great Ray Harryhausen and his revolutionary stop-motion animation techniques. Thanks to this, it's no exaggeration to say that the monster in the film was by far and away its best actor and his only line in it is "waaaaurgh".

Sigmund Freud would take his family on mushroom gathering expeditions during family holidays during which he would institute prizes for the best and second-best mushrooms found. Were these criteria to be applied to the acting in this film, the prize for second-best would go to an elephant in Rome Zoo. But everyone else: thanks for playing. We (probably) couldn't have done it without you.

Which is not to say that there was nothing to learn from this film. It's just that the lessons were more straightforward than one might have expected of a feature from this era. There is an awful lot that anyone watching can find out Venus, Italy and monsters. I found out loads. Here is a summary of my new-found wisdom.

1. Creatures from Venus eat sulphur
They can't get enough of that shit. He passed through a well-stocked Sicilian farmyard, passing by cows, pigs, sheep and horses (additional note: creatures from Venus are not French) in order to get to a few bags of sulphur. He even passed up the chance of a bag of grain. Delicious, delicious grain.

2. Creatures from Venus are "only ferocious if provoked"
This is something of a concern to me. Big green lizards of almost unfettered growth being ferocious at any stage is really no great help to anyone. If you provoked me, I'd probably get miffed after a little while. Ferocity would probably follow but not for a good few hours. Not so on Venus, where it's like a light switch. I'm not sure Venus and I would get along.

3. Elephants don't like creatures from Venus
Most of the sentient beings that encountered the alien vistor in the film reacted with admirable equanimity. But the elephant wasn't having any of it. The elephant, it seems, is ferocious even when not provoked. Good to know, should Venus ever become a problem.

4. The US Army are surprisingly accommodating to the press
Anyone still wondering if perhaps the Roswell incident was a big cover-up need only look as far as this film. Here the US military attaché gave a full, frank and blow-by-blow account of the entire sorry tale so far to the assembled press corps. It is an important lesson in the fact that the US government aren't going to lie to us about the presence of extra-terrestrial life, be it a small alien in New Mexico or a 100-foot high lizard from Venus. Although admittedly the latter would be harder to hush up completely for any significant length of time, especially if it ate the Pope.

5. The greed of Italian children will be the ruin of us all
The lizard's cocoon was in a hermetically sealed jar which washed up on the coast. And if only the first person who found it hadn't been a child whose phenomenal greed and addiction to American western films were his only motivating factors then the lizard may never have walked among us. But it was, and it did.  On the plus side, he did get 200 lire for his troubles (which is approximately eight pence) and with this he bought a cowboy hat. His subsequent admission of this to the US military earned him a further half-million lire, none of which positive re-enforcement seems particularly likely to help encourage him to stick to the right moral path in future. He was going to buy a horse with it, while tanks blasted several new holes in the Colosseum.

6. Venus is 20 million miles from Earth
I'm not sure about the veracity of this fact. I should probably check it before it ruins my chances of success in any future games of Trivial Pursuit. (In fact, at its nearest point to us, Venus is 23.6 million miles from Earth. It's unlikely NASA would be as slapdash as this in any future Venus missions).

7. Creatures from Venus have a bifurcated tail
Forked jobbies. Like a snake's tongue.

8. The water in the river Tiber makes creatures from Venus grow massive
This may not be a fact which is completely set in stone, as there were a number of problems with scale throughout the film. Sometimes the creature was the size of a man, only to be dwarfed by a passing chicken in the next scene. The Tiber certainly seemed to have a marked effect on it, though. So be careful before using it to fill your bidet or else your trousers won't fit.

9. Creatures from Venus have neither a heart or lungs
Frankly, I'm starting to wonder about these facts.

It goes without saying that I am now a bloody expert on Venutian fauna, the ethical implications of interplanetary space travel and the greed of Sicilian fishermen's children and am therefore available to answer any questions you may have about any of the issues raised in this post.

1 comment:

Megan Belcher said...

Can't go wrong with Ray Harryhausen!

http://www.wexarts.org/db/fv/3091_20MillionMiles_GS_383.jpg

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