Real-Life Places That Stood in for Movie Fantasy Lands

Thanks to the ever-expanding capabilities of computer-generated imagery, today’s moviemakers are able to create fantastic settings for the characters in their films. But CGI only goes do far – and to achieve even more realism, exotic Earthly locales often stand in for mythical lands and distant planets. The following list features some of cinema’s most fantastic settings – and the real-life places that “played” them on the big screen.

Cinematic Significance: Luke Skywalker’s stomping grounds in Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977)
Filming Locations: Tunisia and Death Valley, U.S.
In order to achieve a ‘desert planet’ effect, George Lucas and crew traveled to two of the hottest places on Earth. ‘Tatooine’ takes its name from an actual Berber community in Tunisia’s southern region, where many locals (like the Skywalker clan) dwell in subterranean abodes carved out of sandstone. Other memorable sequences, including Luke’s battle with Jawa raiders and the infamous ‘cantina scene’, were also shot in Tunisia. Luke’s landspeeder scenes, on the other hand, were filmed in the expansive flats of Death Valley. 

Mount Doom
Cinematic Significance: Towering residence of Dark Lord Sauron in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03)
Filming Location: Mount Ruapehu, New Zealand
According to Tolkien folklore, the evil sorcerer Sauron forged the One Ring – the most inconvenient jewelry item in the history of Middle Earth – in the fiery depths of Mount Doom. Director Peter Jackson initially used New Zealand’s Mount Ngauruhoe as his inspiration – however, his crew was unable to film there because the site is sacred to the native Maori people. So when it came time to shoot the slopes of Mount Doom, nearby Mount Ruapehu was used instead.

Cinematic Significance: The distant planet visited by an ill-fated space crew in Prometheus (2012)
Filming Location: Iceland and Jordan
The opening shot in Ridley Scott’s long-awaited Alien prequel depicts an extra-terrestrial humanoid standing on the banks of a massive waterfall – a scene that, according to the director, was meant to symbolize the beginning of time. To achieve this magnificent shot, he and his crew traveled to Dettifoss, a 330-foot-wide waterfall located in Iceland’s Vatnajökull National Park. Subsequent scenes depicting a dry, desert wasteland were filmed in Jordan’s Wadi Rum valley, a setting that was also utilized in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).

The Cliffs of Insanity
Cinematic Significance: Site of the fencing duel between Wesley and Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride (1987)
Filming Location: Cliffs of Moher, Ireland
This hilarious swordfight is one of the most memorable scenes from one of the most memorable films of the 80’s. To achieve the necessary visual spectacle, director Rob Reiner and crew traveled to the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s top tourist destinations. The picturesque crags are mostly comprised of shale and sandstone, and home to 30,000 birds from more than 20 species, including Atlantic puffins, guillemots and hawks.

Kingdom of Governor Odious
Cinematic Significance: The imaginary setting for Roy’s epic tale in The Fall (2006)
Filming Location: 22 different countries
You have to hand it to director Tarsem Singh and his location scouts during production of this visually stunning epic – they were extraordinarily thorough. In order to create an otherworldly realm that existed entirely within the protagonist’s mind, the crew traveled to six different continents. Filming locations included the Namib Desert, South Pacific coral reefs, Bolivian sand flats and the Great Wall of China. Singh claimed the footage was so spectacular that he was able to make his film without creating a single computer-generated image – and if you’ve seen The Fall, then you understand the magnitude of this accomplishment.

By Brad Nehring