The faux-dinosaur at the heart of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (dubbed Rhedosaurus) is the twisted atomic heart of an entire genre of films about gigantic monsters created or awakened by nuclear bombs. For all of the stilted dialog, slumberous pacing, and wooden acting, those big set pieces make the journey worth it. It’s brief running time taps into the Atomic Age paranoia by unleashing this super-beast to destroy civilization, only for civilization to eventually prove its undoing.
One of the best things about The Beast is the simplicity of plot and character development. There’s no moral quandaries here, just a zippy race through the big plot dumps and science pseudo-jargon to get us back to the big monster tearing shit up. It’s innocent nonsense and clearly in love with Ray Harryhausen’s charming lo-fi effects work.
Those special effects are a little dated, but they radiate with a curious imagination and dream-like terror. You can see how Jurassic Park’s T-Rex attacks echo the Rhedosaurus’ rampage through New York city, especially a bit where it leans down to eat a passerby, jerks its head from side to side, then swallows the poor guy. The Rhedosaurus is kept at a distance for the first 2/3 of the plot, then in the final act, all hell is unleashed. This last act makes the entire trip worth it, flaws and all, for the artistry of Harryhausen’s stop-motion creation. Its ultimate destruction in the ruins of a roller coaster ride is practically symbolic of the film itself, for what else could best describe this film than a thrill ride gone off the rails?
It is undoubtedly a classic of the genre, but a deeply flawed one. It’s charming to watch not just for the ways it lays the groundwork and all of the pieces for this genre, which Harryhausen made some of the best but by no means the majority of films in, but for its special effects. It’s wonky, but lovable in its giddy hokum. I frankly adored this dinosaur, and felt a child-like joy in watching it destroy a theme park. It was just too perfect and symbolically loaded for words.