For all the grand spectacle and movie magic that continues to test the limits of creativity and imagination, the best of what films have to offer is surely something tangible. Time and again, audiences prefer the real and authentic over the digital and fabricated — at least at the basest level. Those movies, say like Mad Max: Fury Road or Independence Day, that featured practical effects with some digital enhancement, proved more enjoyable and ultimately superior to movies like any of the Star Wars prequels, which were just an explosion of CGI and green screen.
Filming on location has so often been the key to making something memorable and distinct. The effects are twofold, which we will explore below. On one hand, certain science fiction realms in film are based on places right here on Earth, places we can visit and discover for ourselves. And on the other hand, there are buildings and houses that have been featured in films that have since become unforgettable, etching these sites into cinematic lore.
Here are some of the more memorable movie landmarks and locales that can be found here on Earth.
Yavin IV and Tatooine, Star Wars
There are many iconic settings in the Star Wars universe — and many aren’t as far away as the film franchise would have you believe. The rebel outpost featured prominently in the original trilogy, and again in the Rogue One spinoff, is hidden in the fictional forests of the fourth moon of Yavin. George Lucas apparently found a worthy stand-in here on Earth: a spot in Central America, which he discovered through an advertisement for Tikal National Park in Guatemala.
Of course, the beginning of A New Hope, and really the introduction of the entire series and of our main hero, offers some of the most distinct shots across all of the saga. The planet of Tatooine, and Luke’s home, can be found in the deserts of Tunisia. The Sidi Driss Hotel in the small town of Matmata was transformed into the interior of young Skywalker’s home, while the landscapes outside became the sandy desert expanse of the far off planet.
The Shire, Lord of the Rings
This might be the most popular and well-known film locale of all, but it’s still worth mentioning due to the sheer scale and popularity of The Lord of the Rings franchise. The Shire is real—that is, it was built for the film—and while, yes, it’s been highly commercialized with plenty of tourism opportunities, it is a part of a wondrous fantasy world that exists here on Earth. And you actually have to get to New Zealand to enjoy it, which is definitely better than the Shire sitting on a lot in Hollywood or taking up space at an amusement park. Side note: Mordor isn’t yet a place we can visit on Earth, but the cynics among us might say that with the direction the world is moving, it’s not far off.
Katz Deli, When Harry Met Sally
One of the most memorable scenes in one of the most lauded romantic comedies took place in a deli that was already pretty famous in its own right. Katz Delicatessen in the Lower East Side has been family run since it was established in 1888. One hundred years after its founding, it became the setting in When Harry Met Sally where the latter of the title characters, played by Meg Ryan, stuns the former—as well as every patron in the deli—by faking an orgasm. I can only imagine how many guests in the last thirty years have told the servers, “I’ll have what she’s having,” and how many servers have had to pretend to laugh and find it funny.
The Firehouse, Ghostbusters
Hook and Ladder Company #8 isn’t likely a group that most people are familiar with, but a look at where they operate should serve as an adequate refresher. The firehouse featured in Ghostbusters is real and spectacular, and still in use to this day. It’s located in Tribeca, but only the exteriors were used for the film. To get a proper look at the interiors where the Ghostbusters convened, you’d have to visit Fire Station #23, located all the way across the country in Los Angeles. This building was decommissioned decades ago, but has since been made into a heritage site.
The Stone Steps, The Exorcist
I can only imagine, having never actually visited them, that the stone steps from The Exorcist are still pretty surreal in person. The paragon of horror films was shot in the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington D.C., and Georgetown University now holds an annual screening of the film every year on Halloween. Everything in the film is eerie and unnerving, and the so-called satanic steps deliver characters their fatal reckonings. I’m sure everything is just fine and safe there, but really, who wants to tempt fate with a late night visit?
Al Khazneh, Jordan, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Maybe The Last Crusade was a little cheesy at times, but it’s still a spectacular finish to the Indiana Jones trilogy, and is arguably the last Indiana Jones film that any fan cares to remember. The plot follows the search for the holy grail, and fans of the film (or the grail, I suppose) can take a trip to Al Khazneh in Petra, Jordan to see the temple our heroes search for in the film. It’s become a popular tourist attraction, naturally, but is pretty impressive even beyond its ties to the film, as the stunning site was built in the first century A.D. This film locale is best visited on horseback, and left via a ride off into the sunset.