Where No Human Has Gone Before: Visiting Sci-Fi's Exoplanets on Earth
Calling “Lights! Camera! Action!” on a Hollywood stage to mimic the setting of a generic suburban apartment is easy. When a film takes place on another planet, convincingly evoking an alien world is more complicated than using the usual soundstage and standard backlot. Fortunately for filmmakers looking for setting options other than green screens and CGI, the United States’ strange geologies offer alien landscapes within its borders. That’s also good news for speculative fiction fans looking for a quick trip off-world before the advent of supraluminal travel.
While most cinemagoers associate the scenery of the American West with cowboy movies, science fiction filmmakers have used the weird geological features of western lands as settings to evoke an awareness of strange climates and otherworldly views. By traveling to principal photography locations, Sci-Fi fans can visit the alien worlds—and the odd alien—shown in productions ranging from Star Trek to Stargate Universe to even the animated series Futurama.
The Planet of the Apes
The opening scenes of the original Planet of the Apes (1968) use landscape to disorient the main characters, as well as the movie-watching audience, by showing the humans’ spaceship landing in an unnatural-looking deep lake surrounded by red desert sandstone, leading everyone to believe the planet is an alien one.
Filming the opening of the movie in Lake Powell near Glen Canyon, Arizona, a paradoxical deep lake in a desert, unsettles those taking in the scene because it appears natural and yet exists only through artificial involvement (in actuality, the human intervention of damming the Colorado River).
The dry, tree-free and plant-free red rock environment of Lake Powell and the apes’ planet is something unfamiliar to the majority of the Earth’s population that dwells on the coasts. Having a desert environment suggests a habitat challenging to primate habitation. In retrospect, the desert represents the plant-free wasteland that the Earth has become.
Similarly set on Earth, the comedy Evolution (2001) also takes advantage of the unusual setting around Glen Canyon, this time by having aliens land somewhere other than a major population center familiar to movie goers, like Washington, D.C., New York, or Paris. Instead, first contact takes place in Page, Arizona. The incongruous setting parodies other films that have aliens travel light years across the universe and zero in on Earth’s power centers.
Those who want to visit the Planet of the Apes and Evolution’s setting can make a short jaunt from the Grand Canyon to the northern Arizona area of Highway 89.
With a name sounding more appropriate for a fantasy setting, Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park provided the inspiration for both an alien and its planet in Galaxy Quest’s (1999) rock monster scenes.
Remember the funny looking brown rocks in the background of the rock monster battle? They weren’t papier-mâché, nor were they computer-generated effects. The “goblins” inhabiting this valley are common brown sandstone eroded into uncommon formations called “stone babies.” Our planet’s erosion processes provided creative inspiration for an extraterrestrial ecosphere other than that of the usual water-loving, carbon-based humanoid. The rock monster that fights Captain Taggart seems to appear “organically” from this rocky landscape.
Located in a remote portion of central Utah, Goblin Valley can be found near Hanksville and off Highway 24, a couple hours west of Moab and Arches National Park. As a state park, Goblin Valley provides camping and standard park services for Earth travelers looking to experience the rock monster’s home.
In contrast to most other parks, Goblin Valley doesn’t proscribe trails to follow in the valley among the stone formations, suggesting visitors walk in and amongst the brown goblins, letting SF fans see Galaxy Quest’s rock battle site up close. Park visitors can be overheard using the stone formations as a landscape-based Rorschach test, comparing the formations to mushrooms, ducks, trolls, eggs, and more.
Scouts from all over the Southwest frequently camp here, playing amongst the goblins. One ranger indicated visitors love to walk amongst the formations during full moons—and to play moonlit laser tag in the valley.
Representing the desert selection from the single ecosystem Star Wars planetary collection, the Tatooine of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) is a scorched, barren world baked by two suns. The Earth-based version of Luke Skywalker’s homeworld was filmed and modified in the ominously named Death Valley in southeastern California.
The lowest, hottest, and driest point in North America presents a range of desert features, including sand dunes, salt pans, “bad water,” and dry lakes. With feature names like the Devil’s Golf Course, the Devil’s Cornfield, and Dante’s View, Death Valley sounds more like a horror movie setting.
Instead, the national park provides the exterior view of the science fiction Tatooine. The Jawa transport that carries C3PO away trundles across the Death Valley landscape near Artist’s Palette, a pull-off on the park’s scenic drive, with a rocky foreground and steep mountains in the background. R2D2 rolls through a desert arroyo in that area. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), the droids make their way across the shifting sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells. One can only imagine the difficulties the actors experienced inside their costumes in the non-sound stage setting.
Although it’s not mentioned in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), the desert location is subject to flash flooding. When C3P0 and R2D2 make their way to Jabba the Hutt’s palace to present themselves as a gift, the two droids travel up a desert road that has subsequently been washed out through continued water erosion.
In Star Wars IV, when Luke, Obi-Wan and the droids stop the landspeeder and overlook of the Mos Eisley spaceport, they gaze over the range of geological features, from desert floor to sheer mountains, associated with Luke’s homeworld and Death Valley National Park.
To experience Tatooine without threat of Tusken Raider attack, fans can travel to Death Valley National Park and even stay in in-park hotels somewhat more accommodating than Jabba the Hutt’s palace, the Sarlacc Pit, or a carbonite coffin. Death Valley is a little over two hours’ drive west of the cantinas of Las Vegas.
In a rare episode on location outside the Pacific Northwest, the Stargate Universe (2009) show exploits an unusual setting in the final part of season 1’s three-episode story, “Air.” In that episode, SGU consciously explores the theme of intergalactic travel’s resource limitations with a trip to White Sands, New Mexico. After the Destiny’s air filters stop cleaning the ship’s air, the crew goes searching for lime to repair the filters on a white sand desert planet represented by the southern New Mexico site.
White Sands National Monument preserves a portion of the largest gypsum dune field in the world (the remainder is located on military land). The distinctive snow-white crystalline sands occupy the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert. SGU “Air” Director Andy Mikita noted the challenges of filming in the desert where temperatures reached 117 degrees Fahrenheit on the last days of the five-day shoot.
Stargate Universe fans can experience the same landscape as Dr. Rush, Ronald Greer, and the rest of the SGU team by traveling to White Sands National Monument, 15 miles west of Alamogordo. Visitors can have an easier time traversing this world than the SGU team by taking a scenic drive through the exoplanet, stopping at interpreted pull-offs and walking out across the white sand dunes. The wind-swept dunes keep the park changing. Road graders routinely scrape the shifting sand road leading into the park.
Star Trek, Starship Troopers, and More
Sometimes a single site can be used in many films and television shows, even within the same franchise. Star Trek, including The Original Series, The Next Generation, Voyager, and both the original and the re-launched movie series, shot multiple times at a single location, recasting the same site for different settings. These Star Trek episodes and movies used one of the most popular film locations in Southern California: Vasquez Rocks Natural Area. Although named for a law enforcement evader and more suggestive of Westerns, this set of San Andreas Fault-tilted rocks has served as many planets in Star Trek, as well as in a number of other Sci-Fi films and shows.
One of the earliest and most vivid Star Trek scenes showing Vasquez Rocks is from the original series’ episode “Arena” (season 1, episode 18), in which Kirk battles with the reptilian Gorn in a trial by combat. (Imagine how the actor who played Gorn must have felt filming in the high desert wearing a latex costume.)
Later episodes remake Vasquez Rocks into different planets. In the Star Trek, The Original Series, show “The Alternative Factor” (season 1, episode 27), the rocks open the show and serve as the uncharted planet where the Enterprise crew meets parallel universe traveler Lazarus. Traveling between universes, Lazarus falls off the distinctive cliffs of Vasquez—repeatedly.
In another episode, the rocky park becomes Capella IV, a rich source of the rare mineral “topaline,” in ST:TOS “Friday’s Child” (season 2, episode 11). The visible rocks in this show perhaps suggest the Capellans’ mineral resources.
The slanting rocks provide dynamic movement, as well as an unsettling slant that skews the scene off-balance. Comic artists have long used a tilted aspect to suggest the villainous or the ominous. The setting was perfect for the Star Trek: TOS story “Shore Leave” (season 1, episode 15), in which the crew stumbles upon a planet of illusions, like an amusement park of hallucinations. On that planet, Kirk has a fight with Finnegan, a prankster from his Academy days. The pair first run from a grassy tree area, filmed on site at Marine World/Africa USA in Redwood Shores, California, and then jump into the off-kilter desert landscape of Vasquez Rocks.
The later Star Trek franchises also used Vasquez Rocks area to represent a variety of rugged and harsh terrains. Star Trek: The Next Generation created Mintaka III from the location. In season 3, episode 4, “Who Watches the Watchers” (1989), the Rocks are part of the setting of a planet where the Federation uses a holographic projection blind, mimicking the local rock, to watch a proto-Vulcan species evolve. Given that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) filmed Vulcan at Vasquez Rocks, it seems particularly appropriate that a proto-Vulcan species might arise in a similar habitat.
Star Trek: Voyager also filmed at Vasquez in “Initiations,” episode 2 of season 2, and used a variety of effects to augment the natural setting. In that episode, Chakotay is shot down in an escaping shuttlecraft with a Kazon boy sent to kill him. In the show, Vasquez becomes an M-class moon named Tarok, an Ogla training ground, that is riddled with “biomagnetic traps” and “disrupter snares.” The boy throws a rock to demonstrate a proton beam’s presence, triggering an explosion that was a combination of mechanical and visual effects.
Even Star Trek: Enterprise manages to get in on the act. “Unexpected” (season 1, episode 5) contains an homage to Vasquez with a set of tilted rocks appearing in the Xyrilian holodeck’s recreation of their homeworld.
With so many different Star Trek episodes and films creating so many planets out of Vasquez Rocks, it’s no surprise that the site would become the subject of science fictional parody. Matt Groening’s animated Sci-Fi show Futurama (1999), no stranger to spoofing Star Trek, parodied the Vasquez Rocks setting in 2002’s “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” (season 4, episode 12), a title parodying ST:TOS’s “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (season 1, episode 3). In the show, Futurama’s Captain Turanga Leela chases an animated Captain Kirk up a rock slope, and when the “camera” pulls back, the characteristic slant of the Vasquez Rocks emerges. This time, Kirk fights Leela instead of the Gorn.
A wide range of movies, television shows, and commercials—not just science fiction films—have all filmed at Vasquez Rocks because of the location’s unusual appearance, but also because of its relatively close proximity to Hollywood studios. Productions shooting there have included Westerns such as Bonanza (1959), Zorro (1957), Blazing Saddles (1974) and Wild Wild West (1999); comedies like Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991); and TV mystery shows like Monk (2002).
Another SF film, Starship Troopers (1997), also shot scenes at Vasquez Rocks. Celebrating their battle success on Tango Urilla (a fight actually filmed in South Dakota’s badlands), the Roughnecks spend that night partying under the recognizable tilt of Vasquez Rocks.
Filmmaking fans can visit all these different worlds just off the Antelope Valley Freeway (15) in southern California.
Star Trek: The Planet Vulcan
Vulcan began life in the movies in Star Trek: The Motion Picture through a combination of on-location filming at Yellowstone National Park, set recreation in a studio, and matte painting. The planet Vulcan was filmed at Minerva Terrace in the Mammoth Hot Springs area of the national park’s boardwalks, with the white travertine in the front to mid-ground and the hot springs steaming in the background. The green hillsides, the mountains, and the visitor parking area below were all removed, being replaced by a matte background with a giant moon painted on it.
Jagged Vasquez Rocks have served as the planet Vulcan in two separate Star Trek films, Star Trek IV (1986) and the recent reboot, Star Trek (2009). In Star Trek IV, Spock ascends the tall rocks to meditate, framed against the red hue of the Vulcan sky. Vasquez Rocks again becomes Vulcan in the 2009 Trek, largely through the magic of CGI. The site’s unique architecture is very visible, particularly as images are CGI cut ’n’ pasted repeatedly, creating a series of overlapping Vasquez Rocks, as Spock’s mother goes outside to gaze on the Romulan drilling attack. Spock himself goes to the Vulcan sanctuary at Vasquez as the Enterprise beams out the Vulcan elders.
Green, grass-obscured landscapes don’t suggest alien worlds the way deserts with their bared rock formations can. Strange geologies can provide interesting disorientation through unusual cinematographic angles and the suggestion of movement in static shots.
Alien water worlds, like the Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones planet Kamino (where the clones are manufactured), are rare. While that might be attributable to filming challenges (note the overruns of 1995’s Waterworld), it might also owe a significant debt to the human biological need for water. Any planet without plentiful water seems “alien” to viewers who dwell on a world covered by it.
After paying entry fees ranging from nothing to $20, Sci-Fi fans can visit the alien worlds of Star Trek, Star Wars, Starship Troopers, Stargate Universe and Futurama. Looking through a Sci-Fi cinematographers’ lens, human-habitable extrasolar planets are as close as the Western United States. If you go, don’t forget to take your tricorder.