For An Alien World, Look No Further Than Iceland

Iceland's Svinafellsjokull Glacier played a prominent role in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. (Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon - © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)
Iceland’s Svinafellsjokull Glacier played a prominent role in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. (Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon – © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

After hundreds of years, the Svinafellsjokull Glacier is ready for its close-up. The Icelandic glacier has a starring role in Interstellar, the sci-fi movie about a team of astronauts lead by Matthew McConaughey that travel to a distant planet in search of a new home for the human race as the Earth becomes uninhabitable.

The glacier, and Vatnajökull National Park where it resides, are stand ins for the of icy, alien world the film is meant to depict. Little set dressing was required for the mid-September 2013 shoot, only a huge model of McConaughey’s space ship was brought to the section of Iceland’s largest glacier.

“How would you recreate the biggest glacier in Europe in a studio?” said actor David Gyasi, who plays one of the astronauts, in a promotional video for the movie. “You wouldn’t.”

The glacier is getting plenty of exposure worldwide thanks to the movie. Interstellar has taken in more than $200 million at the international box office since it opened last week.

The space epic isn’t director Christopher Nolan’s first time filming at the glacier. In 2005’s Batman Begins, Nolan used Svinafellsjokull and other areas of Iceland as stand ins for the Tibetan Himalayas, a remote training ground for Bruce Wayne, where he learns how to fight prior to becoming Batman. Iceland is easier to access for film crews than the Himalayas and other mountain ranges, so the tiny North Atlantic country often plays many real and imagined locations.

Interstellar is hardly the first, or the last, movie to take advantage of Iceland's frozen landscapes. (Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon - © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)
Interstellar is hardly the first, or the last, movie to take advantage of Iceland’s frozen landscapes. (Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon – © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

Iceland’s unique and varied landscapes have also been featured prominently in TV and film before. The country stood in for another alien landscape in Prometheus, the frozen northern region Beyond the Wall in HBO’s Game of Thrones, and the black sands of Iwo Jima in Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.

This year has been a big one for glaciers in the movies. GlacierHub previously wrote about Austria’s Hintertux glacier appearing in Snowpiercer, a movie about the last of humanity zooming around a frozen Earth on a train. It’s worth noting that both Snowpiercer and Interstellar feature humans searching for a way out of climate problems plaguing the planet. Perhaps the most feared future in science fiction isn’t a world of warm temperatures and high seawater, but one too frozen for people to live.

 

 

 

 

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The glaciers win in “Snowpiercer”, but at what cost?

Humanity struggles to stay warm in a train speeding around a frozen Earth in "Snowpiercer". (© 2013 - RADiUS/TWC)
Humanity struggles to stay warm in a train speeding around a frozen Earth in “Snowpiercer”. (© 2013 – RADiUS/TWC)

Remember when Godzilla used to be scary?

Climate change horror seems to be the new go-to disaster for Hollywood films as of late. Unlike giant floods, tornados or even Godzilla, the world freezing over affects everyone at once. There might be an escape from a giant atomic lizard, but when the temperatures change, there’s nothing we can do as a species but adapt.

That adaptation comes in the form of a speeding, circumnavigating train in the new movie Snowpiercer. The exposition in the opening minutes of the movie sets up the scenario: to counteract warming global temperatures, scientists in the present day developed a chemical that will cool the earth when released into the atmosphere. It worked a little too well.

What’s left of humanity is stuffed into a train, divided so neatly into class sections it would make a political science sophomore blush. The poor are crammed into industrialized bunk beds in the tail section while the rich at the front of the train enjoy saunas, sushi and never-ending raves. After spending 17 years in the squalid back of the train eating gelatinous black protein blocks, Curtis, the film’s lead (Captain America‘s Chris Evans), reluctantly leads an uprising to take over the engine.

What’s interesting about Snowpiercer isn’t so much the setting but that climate change horror seemed to be playing a larger role in movies right now. As New Yorker film critic David Denby wrote about the Snowpiercer, “The current designers of awe, in Hollywood and elsewhere, have gone back to the Apocalypse. They’ve created what might be called the Seven Horsemen of the Multiplex: aliens, pandemics, floods, ice, comets and other interplanetary flotsam, nuclear war, and zombies.”

That fourth one, ice, popped up in last year’s The Colony, which imagines humanity living underground after the world freezes over once climate-changing weather machines break down. In both films, the fear seems to come from geoenginnering gone wrong as much as it does from a permanent Ice Age. (In some sense, this is also what the mega-hit Frozen is about.)

http://www.cinetirol.com/en/home/snowpiercer-in-tirol-1664477.html
On location at the Hintertux glacier in Austria. (from left) TJ Park (Producer), Sung Ho Nam (Production Manager), Dooho Choi (Co-Producer), Alex Hong (DoP), Thomas Fuchs (Cine Tirol), Bong Joon-Ho (Director), Robert Bernacchi (Co-Producer). (Cine Tirol Film Commission)

In an odd way, Snowpiercer highlights the seriousness of glacial retreat; only a cosmically huge event is capable of bringing them back. One scene in the movie features a shot of the Hintertux glacier in the Tyrolean Alps of Austria. Though the movie takes place in 2031, the glacier will almost certainly be visibly smaller by time that year actually rolls around.

Over Independence Day weekend, Snowpiercer only took in a little over a million dollars at the box office. In South Korea, where it was co-produced, the movie made nearly $60 million, setting a new record in that country. This was the first English-language production for Snowpiercer‘s director, Joon-ho Bong, whose monster movie The Host achieved popularity in the U.S. when it was released in 2006.

Whether the most expensive Korean movie ever made finds popularity here in America (which accounts for only 2 percent of worldwide box office receipts so far), remains to be seen. Audiences may instead choose to find comfort this summer in a much more comforting disaster from the east: Godzilla.

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