We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.
Movies have an unparalleled ability to transport us to places we never could have imagined, doubly so when they’re actually set on alien planets, parallel dimensions, or the far-off future. Science fiction specializes in stretching the limits of our collective imagination, but it takes at least a little reality to show us what might be there — namely shooting locations, which are as essential to establishing the look and feel of stories set in strange areas on and off this planet. Here are seven out-of-this-world spots from sci-fi movies.
Blade Runner: Bradbury Building, Los Angeles
While it's accurate to call the Bradbury Building a shooting location for Blade Runner (1982), it's also downplaying the architectural landmark’s legacy. The building has been featured in dozens of movies and television shows, from M (1931) and Chinatown (1974) to Pushing Daisies (2007) and The Artist (2011). But its use in Ridley Scott's sci-fi classic is especially memorable. (The name, however, has nothing to do with sci-fi luminary Ray Bradbury — the building bears the name of Lewis L. Bradbury, the millionaire who commissioned it in 1892.)
Even so, the building’s near-ubiquity led to some skepticism when Scott first announced his plans to film there. “‘The Bradbury Building? But everyone on TV uses it!’” the filmmaker has said of the initial response. “But I said, ‘Back off! I’m gonna use it and I’m gonna shoot it in a way you have never seen before.’” That’s exactly what he did in Blade Runner’s climactic sequence; the off-kilter backdrop lends the film’s final moments much of their strange poignancy.
Contact: Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico
Sci-fi enthusiasts who believe the truth is out there are sure to appreciate Contact (1997), a journey to the stars that’s ultimately as much about discovering ourselves as it is about discovering extraterrestrials. Jodie Foster stars in Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name, with one memorable scene taking place at the largest single-satellite-dish site in the world — Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory. Also known as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), the massive structure is owned by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and previously appeared in the James Bond flick GoldenEye (1995) as well as Species (1995).
Unfortunately, the observatory was decommissioned in November 2020 due to safety concerns and collapsed in December. It was a huge loss for science, but at least the telescope dish will live on in science fiction.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Devils Tower, Wyoming
Devils Tower National Monument was famous long before Steven Spielberg immortalized it on film. President Theodore Roosevelt named the 1,267-foot-tall butte in Wyoming’s Black Hills America's first national monument in 1906, and it has long been an attraction for climbers, bird-watchers, and anyone with an appreciation for natural beauty. Even so, there’s no denying that it reached a new level of prominence after serving as the location of the alien-filled finale in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
“I’ve been fortunate to work on a lot of films and scout a lot of places in the world. I don’t think there’s any singular place like Devils Tower,” Joe Alves, the film’s production designer and location scout, explained in an interview. Making the site even more memorable is its deep significance among Native Americans, including the Kiowa, Lakota, Sioux, and Cheyenne tribes. “It’s so perfect because of the theme of the film, that there really may be some spiritual sense in the mountain, which just adds to the credibility of what the whole film is about,” Alves added. “That if aliens were to come, why wouldn’t they choose a place like this?”
The Empire Strikes Back: Finse, Norway
The battle that opens The Empire Strikes Back (1980) has long been celebrated as one of the Star Wars saga’s most memorable sequences. Less well-known is the locale where that skirmish was actually filmed: Finse, a mountain village in Norway that’s home to the country’s highest train station at 4,009 feet. There are no roads in or out of the village, making it as difficult to reach as it is striking to observe. Frequently covered in snow, Finse is so remote that it truly does look alien at times. Production wasn’t easy, with a series of avalanches and snow storms delaying filming just as stars Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill arrived on set, but the final product speaks for itself.
Prometheus: Dettifoss, Iceland
While longtime fans of Alien (1979) and its sequels were divided on the narrative merits of Ridley Scott’s long-awaited prequel, there’s no denying how visually arresting Prometheus (2012) is. That’s especially true of the film’s opening sequence, which was shot in Iceland — an increasingly popular spot for sci-fi and action flicks. Dettifoss (Icelandic for falling waterfall), located in Vatnajӧkull National Park, is Europe's largest waterfall by volume, standing 147 feet high by 328 feet wide as it releases 500,000 liters of water per second, which is only part of what makes this scene so memorable.
There's also the tall, muscular alien creature who appears to create all life on Earth after consuming a black substance, dying, and plummeting into Dettifoss, allowing its DNA to mingle with the water and make its way into this new environment. Big things have small beginnings, as the film reminds us, and Prometheus couldn’t have struck such a compelling first note without this stunning backdrop.
Stalker: Tallinn, Estonia
One of the best sci-fi films ever made, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is also one of the most visually impressive. To achieve the surreal look of “The Zone,” an enigmatic area that isn't subject to the normal laws of reality and where a person's deepest wishes may be granted, Tarkovsky and his crew mostly shot near Tallinn, Estonia's capital and most populous city. Many of the locations were industrial in nature: two deserted hydropower plants, a chemical factory, and the Tallinn Power Plant.
As is the case with most of the Russian filmmaker’s masterpieces, however, this story doesn't have the happiest of endings. A number of people involved in the making of Stalker died from causes that may have been related to these locations. Allergic reactions and even Tarkovsky’s own untimely death at the age of 54 have been speculatively linked to the potential toxicity of these areas, emphasizing the need for proper safety protocols when filming in extreme locations.
Starship Troopers: Badlands, South Dakota
It took a long time for Starship Troopers (1997) to be properly appreciated, but better late than never. Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of the Robert Heinlein novel was always more satirical than straightforward, but one aspect of the film that’s always been clear is how striking its alien worlds are. To achieve the look and feel of Tango Urilla, where a disastrous battle against the villainous Arachnids takes place, Verhoeven and his crew ventured to Badlands National Park. The park’s striking sedimentary rock layers on colorful pinnacles, buttes, and spires look truly otherworldly, as does another key location: Hell’s Half Acre in Wyoming, which was used as the alien home planet of Klendathu.