Directors have been making movies about otherworldly places since Georges Méliès’ 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon. And where else to film a movie about a distant galaxy? A corner of Planet Earth that looks nothing like Planet Earth. That means a landscape nothing like the high-rise you live in and the streets you walk every day. These remote, beautiful, baffling Earthly places have become the exotic planets of your favourite Hollywood space adventure.
We sent LEE COBAJ in search of an extraterrestrial experience in the Maldives, while MARK JONES follows the sci-fi moviemakers from the Middle East to Australasia in search of another galaxy.
And being May 4th, what better way to kick off than with a Star Wars reference.
Laamu Atoll, Maldives
On film: Scarif in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
From the air, it looks more like a work of abstract art than a point on the map: loops of silver rings, a crescent daub of aquamarine, a soft brush of cerulean against a sapphire canvas. Swoop lower and the shapes start to take form. Chains of bushy islands haloed by bright white powder, angular sandbanks peeking just above the waterline, and an ocean bluer than the bluest eyes. At ground level (a maximum height of 1.8 metres above the sea), the Indian Ocean flows so gently you can barely hear it touch the beach. Palm trees, basking in 300 days of sunshine a year, soar 15, 20 metres high. Underwater, it’s the Paris catwalk of the marine world – shoals of stripy needlefish swish one way then the other, purple parrotfish pout, velvety stingrays wiggle across the surface. Elemental and otherworldly, this is Planet Scarif: otherwise known as Laamu Atoll in the Maldives.
Starring alongside Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen in the latest Star Wars offshoot – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – these far-flung islands provide the backdrop for an epic battle between a newly banded brigade of the Rebel Alliance and the dastardly Imperial Army. In this world, hulking AT-ACT ‘walkers’ plough through the palm trees; ‘shoretroopers’ (an all-new tropical version of the stormtroopers) patrol beaches and bunkers; X-wings crash and burn in turquoise waters.
The official Star Wars website describes it as ‘a would-be tropical island paradise if not for the presence of a major Imperial military installation’. So not ideal for intergalactic holidaymakers.
But perfect for Rogue One director Gareth Edwards.
‘Scarif is based on a paradise world, so we had to go to paradise to film it,’ he told reporters during a Star Wars panel in London. In a move away from previous extraterrestrial-like Earthly environments – the dusty cave dwellings of Tatooine (Tunisia), the icy wilds of Hoth (Norway), the lush Wookiee world of Kashyyyk (Guilin, China) – Edwards opted for the watery expanses of Laamu, a circle of 82 islands. Laamu is so remote in the Maldivian archipelago that only 15 of the islands are inhabited and there’s only one resort to be found, the high-end honeymooners’ favourite, Six Senses Laamu.
The majority of the Scarif scenes were shot on two islands: dainty, deserted Baresdhu and neighbouring Gan, one of the largest landmasses in the Maldives – large enough to house a domestic airport, a Red Cross hospital, schools, offices and a modest hotel, all of which are ringed by eight kilometres of white sands on each side. It’s here that Rogue One’s hero Jyn Erso (Jones) takes to the island’s thick jungle interior on her mission to steal the plans needed to destroy the Death Star, while two of her accomplices Chirrut Îmwe (Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang) head for the beach to engage in a running gun fight with a gang of shoretroopers (whose services were helpfully provided by the Maldivian navy when enough extras failed to materialise from the sparse island population). But while interested adults were hard to come by – most islanders admitted they’d never heard of Star Wars (never heard of Star Wars!) – local children were enthralled, with a regular stream of them sailing in on wooden dhows to catch a glimpse of the cast.
Gan has since returned to its previous sleepy state, its coral brick villages, reefs and ancient Buddhist ruins once again the preserve of the local fishing community. A new guesthouse complex – 2,100 beds are planned by the end of this year – will soon make it cheaper for Star Wars fans to string up a hammock, lie back and think of a galaxy far, far away.
Wadi Rum, Jordan
On film: Mars in Red Planet, Mission to Mars, The Martian
They’re still trying to find water on Mars, and you’ll struggle to find much in its most frequently used Earth-based understudy, the Wadi Rum valley in the Kingdom of Jordan. Still, there’s plenty of mint tea and cold beer to be found in the Bedouin tents set up to cater for the tourists attracted to this sepulchral land of granite and sandstone.
They’ve been coming here since a movie put Wadi Rum on the tourism map: not a sci-fi yarn, but David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia. But now The Valley of the Moon is very much The Fields of Mars. It’s also stood in for other planets in other galaxies: the planet of Jedha in Rogue One and the alien planet in Prometheus.
Fiordland, New Zealand
On film: Unnamed in Alien: Covenant
Well, it makes a change from hobbits.
The production of Alien: Covenant has been shrouded in secrecy, but it’s known that the Fiordland region of New Zealand’s South Island was used as an uncharted planet where the crew of a colony ship discovers more face huggers and terrifying aliens.
In real Earthly life, the inhabitants of Fiordland also spend a lot of time worrying about alien creatures – the rats, stoats, rabbits and the like brought over on colonial ships and now presenting an existential threat to indigenous species like the emblematic kiwi bird. You can have a fun time hiking up the mountains with trappers and guides looking for the remains of the invasive creatures caught in traps set to curb their numbers.
Coober Pedy, South Australia
On film: Unnamed in Pitch Black
Fly over South Australia’s Painted Desert to Coober Pedy and you see thousands of tiny hills like piles of icing sugar. It doesn’t feel like Earth. Check into your underground rock hotel and you wouldn’t be surprised if the receptionist had three heads and a green tail.
Unsurprising, then, that this outback opal mining town was used as an otherworldly location in 2000’s Pitch Black, the cult sci-fi hit that’s already spawned two sequels (with another reportedly on the way). Otherwise it’s a movie veteran – The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome; and Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World.
Underground creatures lurk in the dark – we’re talking about Pitch Black here. In reality, you can tour the individual holes in the ground and see if you can chisel a precious stone or two. The crashed transport ship in the film was brought by a local shop and is still on display – though many tourists seem to mistake it for a prop from Star Wars.