Capturing the atmosphere of a place can be one of cinema’s most powerful qualities. One way to achieve this is by shooting on location, although when the location is a planet in a distant galaxy that might be a little ambitious. But some directors have made exceptionally creative use of the strange diversity of landscapes found on earth, integrating them into their otherworldly films in fascinating ways. Here are 12 of the best uses of real-world settings in sci-fi films.
Jagged pillars of rock rise from this fantastical landscape of crags and forest, reaching as high as 3,500 feet. Suspension bridges cross chasms and the more adventurous can rappel down into the dark, cool depths of gorges and canyons. The scene is especially mystical when fog descends, swathing everything in a dewy mist, a sight fans of Avatar will recognize – Zhangjiajie was the inspiration for the film’s astonishing backdrop of floating mountains.
A wild country of bare rocks, hidden canyons and sharp-edged mountain peaks, the San Rafael Swell has the kind of barren majesty that many sci-fi imaginations have envisaged on a distant planet. It was specifically used as the setting of Vulcan in 2009’s Star Trek. With the Swell’s stone daggers receding into a misty distance, Spock sees Vulcan destroyed by Nero, in act of Grecian vengeance for the annihilation of Romulus.
Avatar’s fictional moonscape, Pandora, provided a pointed contrast to the bare landscapes of Vulcan and myriad other sci-fi films. Lush rainforests covered the moon’s surface, inhabited by a ragged, blue-skinned tribespeople who shared a collective consciousness with the entire planet’s ecology. The live action scenes involving this memorable landscape were filmed in Hawaii’s Keahua Arboretum. As fans of the film will note, the incredibly varied and verdant ecosystem of this serene woodland is an apposite contrast to the incessant activity of Hawaii’s highly developed beach resorts.
This fascinating archeological site hardly needs the affirmation of a famous sci-fi film to attract visitors. It is one of the most incredible artifacts of Mayan civilisation, a deeply evocative and bone-shivering network of temples, palaces, public squares and stone walkways, with smaller dwellings dotted through the surrounding jungle. It is the largest excavated site in the entire American continent. Oh, and it was also used as the rebel base in Star Wars: A New Hope, the epicenter of the fight to revitalize a galaxy. So yeah, it’s a pretty decent spot to visit, in fantasy or reality.
This mighty redwood forest, threaded with 20 miles of hiking trails beneath the vast sky-high canopy, was the setting for Endor in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Endor, of course, was the native home of the film’s ewok population, a cute but extremely tough forest-dwelling species. George Lucas reportedly modelled their strategic warfare on the tactics of Viet Cong fighters, which gives visitors two options when exploring the park: they can either enjoy its immersive tranquility, or turn it into a playground for enacting guerilla war.
It’s debatable whether a Journey to the Center of the Earth is a challenge anyone would want to undertake – treacherous Counts, scorching magma flows, giant lizards and deadly rockfalls are all possible obstacles. For a more predictable excursion, you can visit the site where the 1959 classic was shot, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Yawning mouths in the Guadalupe Mountains lead into a phenomenal underground world, a maze of rocky pathways, subterranean lakes, sudden cathedral-esque caverns and a myriad of crazy rock formations. You could just as easily be in the Mines of Moria, for those more inclined to Middle Earth fantasies.
The Devil’s Tower is a tall rectangle of grey rock that rises out of the rolling forest and prairie land of Wyoming. Its stars in the iconic image of an iconic film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where it does an excellent job of playing itself. Its height and thin ridges of parallel rock also make it a popular if challenging crack climbing site, though this was not a skill the aliens needed when they hovered above it in their intergalactic spacecraft.
Contact is one of those films that should have been terrific. It’s based on a highly-praised novel by Carl Sagan, the great astronomer, who also advised the film’s production team until his death in 1996. Much of it is also set in the magnificent Arecibo Observatory, surrounded by Puerto Rican jungle and containing the largest radiotelescope in the world. Unfortunately the film turned out to be a bit rubbish. The Arecibo Observatory, however, is undoubtedly still worth a visit.
A peaceful island off the coast of Tunisia, Djerba boasts colourful markets, white palm-studded sand and a string of magnificent mosques. It also doubles as Mos Eisley on the planet Tatooine, where, precipitating the turbulence of revolution, Luke Skywalker was born and first joined forces with his fellow rebels. Fans of the film will recognize a great deal as they explore the island.
Climbers hang off the jagged cliffs, surfers ride powerful waves, skin-bronzers stretch out in the heat of the sun – and, wait, is that the tip of the Statue of Liberty poking from the sand? So many pilgrims have pretended, fans of Planet of the Apes who recognize this otherwise beautiful beach from that film’s climactic scene. It is here, amid generalized post-apocalyptic dereliction, that Captain George Taylor falls to his knees and cries, "you damn dirty apes, you blew it up!"
Monument Valley appears in one of the most surreal sequences in movie history, although you may not recognize it. The squares and spikes of Utah sandstone flicker across the screen in trippy black and blue, depicting the surface of an alien planet which Dave journeys through towards the end of the Stargate scene. Accompanied by a dissonant soundtrack, and joining a plotline of immense tension, it’s a mesmerizing transformation of a familiar place.
David Lynch made more straightforward use of the Chihuahua Desert in his epic 1984 adaptation of the novel Dune. The Samalayuca Dunes, a field of giant sand hills that shape the horizon to the south Ciudad Juarez, were used as the film’s atmospheric backdrop. For much of the year, it’s a wide, empty, silent expanse of windblown sand, giving plenty of space for fans of the film to meditate on its message.