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Five Fantasy Movie Settings Based on Real Places

If you ever watched a fantasy film, or films containing elements of the genre, you might believe the breathtaking settings featured were nothing more than visual effects and a lot of green screen usage. It may come to you as a surprise that some of these fantasy settings can actually be found on our precious Earth. You just have to look far enough and surely, you’ll find them! Here are Debu’s top five fantastical destinations you can travel to based off the film settings visually similar to them.  

Salar de Uyuni — Bolivia

The Battle on Planet Crait from Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017). (Courtesy of Lucasfilm)

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Salar de Uyuni during the dry season.

The desierto blanco (white desert) served as the backdrop for the final battle in Star Wars: The Last Jedi on the planet Crait, Remezcla reported. Though famously known for its appearance during the rainy season, Salar de Uyuni’s dry season provided the producers with a geography that best suited the planet. According to Ingeoexpert, the dry season from May to November causes the temperature of the sand flat (a thick, salt-based surface) to lower. It will then surprise you to know that during the rainy season, which is roughly around December to April, you wouldn’t assume the reflective ground is composed of salt (Ingeoexpert). In fact, the ground seems to mirror the sky. It’s almost as though you are walking on water, but the water is frozen in place. 

Jervis Bay — Australia

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Pi sails over glowing, blue water in Life of Pi (2012). (Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

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Bioluminescent waves glow at Jervis Bay.

It is impossible to forget that hauntingly beautiful scene from The Life of Pi where Pi overlooks the blue-lit water he sails over. Though, according to The Verge, the film crew used 3D visual effects for this scene, Jervis Bay is one of many bioluminescent beaches from around the world where this phenomenon occurs naturally. At night around the summer, the water glows an electric blue, looking like bright, blue stars (Outback Tourist). Bioluminescence, The National Geographic writes, is caused by microorganisms like plankton during scientific processes they undergo. 

The Statue of Decebalus — Romania

Frodo and friends travel through the Argonath gates in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). (Courtesy of New Line Cinema)

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The Statue of Decebalus from the river view.

The view of Decebalus’ chiselled head from the Danube River gives a sense of being transported to Middle Earth, particularly Gondor. If you recall that monumental scene where the protagonists of The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring sail past The Argonath, you would be surprised to learn that faces of kings sculpted into rocky mountainsides aren’t entirely new concepts. The large rock pillars based off Kings Isildur and Elendil, like Decebalus’ statue, symbolize the legacy of a strong leader to their nation (Tolkien Gateway). According to Romania Journal, the nation’s ancient history traces back to what was then called Dacia during the Roman Empire era. Resisting Roman rule, Decebalus, the leader of the Dacians, fought three wars against his enemies before falling to defeat at the hands of Emperor Trajan (Atlas Obscura). To commemorate the strength of Decebalus, billionaire Losif Constantin Dragan spent over 1 million USD in commissioning the statue (Romania Journal). 

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park — China

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Pilots fly to the Hallelujah Mountains in Avatar (2009). (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

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A view of Zhangjiajie’s mountains surrounded by clouds.

This national park may automatically ring a bell to you if you’ve seen James Cameron’s Avatar. USA Today reported that the stunning Hallelujah Mountains that float through Pandora’s skies took inspiration from the forest park’s high, rugged landscape. The highest peak, Yuanjiajie, was even renamed Avatar Hallelujah Mountain, according to Asia Culture Travel. At the same time, one might be reminded of Wulong Forest from Avatar: The Last Airbender where the series finale sees Avatar Aang and Fire Lord Ozai battle each other (Avatar Fandom Wiki). What is most remarkable about Zhangjiajie’s geography is the pillar-like shape of these mountains. Named after Zhang Liang, an infamous Han Dynasty general, the forest park translates to “home of the Zhang family” (Asia Culture Travel). 

Kubu Island — Botswana

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T’Challa visits the ancestral plane in Black Panther (2018). (Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

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A beautiful, Milky Way lights the sky at Kubu Island.

If you were in awe of one of Black Panther’s most transcendental scenes, the real-life Kubu Island largely resembles the ancestral plane where T’Challa communes with his ancestors. According to The Wrap, the plane draws on the spiritual elements of African belief systems. It also reflects distinct features of southern Africa’s geography. Isolated from the rest of Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, the otherworldly-looking Kubu Island stands out. According to Mister Safari, the national park is a salt pan, though it is mixed with sand. Their vast, rich grasslands house some of Africa’s most renowned animal species like elephants, hyenas, and zebras. Kubu Island differs geographically from the park, dotted with Baobab trees and white granite-covered terrain (Mister Safari). Kubu comes from the local language, Setswana, translating to hippo, writes Atlas Obscura. What makes Kubu Island especially unique is its night skies. The area is perfect for stargazing, lighting up the dark skies marvellously (Atlas Obscura). If you’re lucky enough, you’ll even catch the Milky Way!

Tashon Daley | Contributing Writer

Summer 2024

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