Remember Planet Klendathu, the first world the new Mobile Infantry recruits visit in the 1997 Starship Troopers movie? How about Planet P where they encounter the Brain Bug? Or Tango Urilla, one of the outer systems where Rico encounters the tanker bug? Want to go there?
I enjoyed visiting all those locations for an extraterrestrial summer vacation, without having to endure interplanetary travel or signing up with the Roughnecks.
The Starship Troopers movie, based on the Hugo Award-winning novel from 1959 by Robert Heinlein, filmed its extraplanetary shots in Wyoming and South Dakota.
Hell's Half Acre / Planets Klendathu and P
My husband and I were already planning a trip to visit America's least populated state, Wyoming, when I discovered that Planet P's and Klendathu's location shootings occurred in what has to be one of the coolest-named locations anywhere: Hell's Half Acre.
We reached Klendathu and Planet P by heading west on Highway 20/26 out of Casper. We passed about an hour's worth of flat, treeless sage grassland. We didn't spot any Bugs along the highway, only some pronghorn antelope and desert cottontails, and, even though we were looking for it, almost missed Hell's Half Acre itself, which is below grade to the south. We pulled off into a parking lot in front of a couple abandoned buildings and walked to an overlook.
Right now, Hell's Half Acre is barely a stop on the side of the two lane highway. Only two small, green road signs on Highway 20/26 mark Hell's Half Acre.
It's fitting that we went there before visiting the Badlands National Park, as the Wyoming site was where the movie's principal photography began and also where the majority of the planetary battle scenes were filmed.
Located near the middle of the rectangular state, Hell's Half Acre is slightly larger than its name suggests at about 320 acres. The site is a canyon clawed out of the otherwise monotonous high Wyoming prairie, a geologists' dream with formations eroded by wind and water action that continues today. The mini-gorge is badland, an arid clay environment in which the soil has eroded from wind and rain. The formations are colorful: white, tan, cream, yellow, and chocolate. White creeks run along the canyon floor, black caves dot the cliffs, milky runoff streaks the hills, and alien-looking columns rise above the clay.
Hell's Half Acre performs double duty in Starship Troopers by serving as two planets, one filmed at night and the other filmed during the day, one opening and the other ending the film's planetary scenes.
Planet Klendathu opens the movie with a night scene in which a war journalist narrates a description of the battle, describing the Big K as "an ugly planet. A Bug planet." The setting remains somewhat mysterious with hints of desert and badland rocky towers appearing in the night-time shadows. The occasional explosion casts light on red and striped badland rocks as the Mobile Infantry retreats from the Bugs, screaming warnings at the journalist. Later, after the Mobile Infantry recruits have completed their training, the infantry faces massive arachnid forces running across the dark canyon floor. A Federal Network clip displays "100,000 Dead in One Hour," showing under daylight the carnage spread over Hell's Half Acre.
Near the end of the movie, Planet P is the location of the Whiskey Outpost, an area of canyons and white formations where the Roughnecks encounter a flying bug and carnage from a prior Bug attack. The climactic battle with numerous Mobile Infantry troops searching for the Brain Bug was also filmed on Planet P. When Carmen Ibanez's escape ship comes crashing down through the atmosphere, the vessel clips one of the cliffs forming Hell's Half Acre.
There's a tendency to try to compare Hell's Half Acre's strange landscape to something else, as if an association to another locale might help describe the surreal, almost fractal, land. An on-site interpretive sign compares the location to the brilliantly colored rocks of Yellowstone. Other accounts call the area mini-Badlands, referring to the national park in South Dakota. I couldn't help but think of Bryce Canyon National Park with its stone hoodoos and alien rock formations.
Hell's Half Acre isn't a developed tourist stop, at least not at present. Years ago, the canyon rim held a restaurant, a campground, and a small motel, in addition to the overlook. The owners put the buildings up for sale in 2003, but no one has purchased the property, leaving the motel set for destruction. Natrona County, the Wyoming locale that owns the land, is currently researching how and whether the site could be developed as a tourist or educational destination.
Standing at an overlook, I stared at the canyon floor 180 feet below and was able to picture exactly where they'd filmed the first Bug battle. I had to admire the Hollywood magic of making a relatively small area do such a wonderful job of suggesting, not just one, but two planetary ecospheres.
Starship Troopers writer, Ed Neumeier, says that some of the planetary movie effects were created on-site, for example by digging holes and having air compressor effects, while matte paintings for backgrounds and computer-generated images were added later.
In his novel, Heinlein doesn't spare a lot of prose on descriptions of the various planets the troopers visit. In the beginning of the novel, Rico, the main character, reflects on what it's like to be a Roughneck on a drop from a space ship, "falling weightlessly toward the surface of a planet you've never seen." Heinlein's lack of description gave the filmmakers plenty of leeway in depicting the surfaces of the hostile planets onto which the Roughnecks drop.
The first planetary body in the novel isn't reflected in the movie; Heinlein mentions a city along a river, as well as a house, a warehouse, public buildings—possibly a palace, wood constructions, and a native race that doesn't appear in the movie. The tactics that the book discusses focus on disrupting public works, such as the water treatment facility, to force the population "to evacuate it without killing anyone." That scene shows natives who live on the planet, another alien race caught between the human and Bug conflict, something we don't see in the Starship Troopers movie.
In the novel, Heinlein writes that Planet P "is smaller than Terra, with a surface gravity of 0.7, is mostly arctic-cold ocean and rock, with lichenous flora and no fauna of interest. Its air is not breathable for long. . . . Its one continent is about half the size of Australia, plus many worthless islands; it would probably require as much terraforming as Venus before we could use it." Looking at Hell's Half Acre, I thought it seemed as though the area would have to be terraformed to provide drinking water and vegetation before anyone could inhabit the area, but I didn't see an ocean or island in the middle of Wyoming.
Perhaps in contrast to the movie depiction, Heinlein mentions that Rico's responsibility on Planet P is over a section of land identified as Square Black One, which is described "as flat as the prairie around Camp Currie [where Rico trained] and much more barren." While the land above Hell's Half Acre might be flat prairie, the area depicting the Planet P battle scene doesn't feature flat or prairie.
Heinlein describes Klendathu more in terms of its strategic significance than its biosphere; it's the Bugs' home planet where Rico participates in Operation Bughouse. With such spare description, the filmmakers were free to again imagine a Bug world using Hell's Half Acre.
I can't imagine buying a cross-country air ticket specifically to overlook Hell's Half Acre, unless you're particularly wealthy and bored or a particularly devoted fan of Starship Troopers. But if you're on a driving tour of the state (maybe following one of the nearby historic trails: Oregon, California, Mormon, or Pony Express) or driving toward Yellowstone from the east, Hell's Half Acre makes a neat rest break.
The Badlands / Tango Urilla
About 400 miles east of Hell's Half Acre, South Dakota's badlands are easily imaginable as the site of westerns such as 1990's Dances with Wolves, as it was, but South Dakota provided the setting for filming another Starship Troopers Bug infestation on Tango Urilla. Although filmmakers shot at a private ranch in badlands territory, public access to South Dakota's badlands is provided through the National Park.
A more traditional tourist site than Hell's Half Acre, the Badlands National Park is easily accessible from Interstate 90, so much so it has been termed a "drive-through" park for its scenic passageway with entrances and exits accessible to the interstate. Such an easily reached park means accessing the landscape of Tango Urilla is a lot shorter trip than a light years commute requiring firing up the Cherenkov drive.
Tango Urilla doesn't exist in Heinlein's novel, one of several artistic liberties the filmmakers chose in creating their movie. In the film, the Tango Urilla scenes occur in a battle about halfway through the movie, just after Rico joins the Roughnecks. The Roughnecks see a Bug hole (actually, a CG effect added later) with Bugs emerging from their tunnel through striated clay badlands. The scenes show Rico leaping onto the back of an acid-spitting tanker bug, shooting, then tossing a grenade into the open wound and jumping off to land beside a tan badlands island formation.
Like Hell's Half Acre, the Badlands are an example of what wind and water erosion do to dry earth, bestowing an extraterrestrial appearance on our planet. Surrounded by mixed-grass prairie, South Dakota's badlands are more monochrome, with white and gray ash and rock, although there is also typical badlands' banding with stratified beds of volcanic ash, sand, silt, and clay in differing colors. Millions of years of rains have eroded the soil to form the seemingly otherworldly buttes, pinnacles, spires, and gullies continuing to change today.
The most notable features from those portions of Starship Troopers filmed in the badlands are the pinnacles and the prairie grass islands. South Dakota's badlands feature distinctive sharp-pointed pinnacles, castle- and spire-like formations with narrow, crisp ridges, seen in the backgrounds behind scouting Roughnecks. The prairie islands are grass-topped mud mounds that haven't yet eroded into the base of the flat plains. They support vegetation not seen in other badland locations such as Hell's Half Acre.
In the park, the five-mile long Castle Trail provides visitors a glimpse into scenery similar to the fictional Tango Urilla. Primarily level, this path parallels pinnacle formations and passes grass islands surrounded by gullies, very much like the prairie island Rico jumps off to land on the tanker bug.
Not heavily used, the Castle Trail offers a chance for solitude and wildlife viewing, as well as for contemplating the meaning of Starship Troopers and whether the scenes from Tango Urilla were indicative of the entire planet's ecosphere.
A small portion of Tango Urilla, the night-time party and celebration after Rico takes out the tanker bug, was filmed at California's Vasquez Rocks, also seen in any number of Star Trek original series' alien vistas.
The Badlands area served as the setting for another science fiction movie. Instead of performing planetary duty, the area served as an asteroid for several scenes in 1998's Armageddon. For this film, the scenery was heavily modified with significant computer-generated graphic elements altering the landscape, a production technique in marked contrast with the Starship Troopers shots.
The filmmakers chose two desert badlands sites for depicting three offworld settings. Putting aside arguments of cost and ease of shooting, perhaps the use of two desert climates evokes an alien landscape for humans because we are creatures made of "two-thirds water," living on a world with two-thirds of its surface as ocean. By using the same sort of climates, the film perhaps suggests that the Bugs excel in a dry environment, hostile to humans.
Or perhaps the filmmakers tapped into a strategic concept described from the novel about the location of battles; in commenting on fighting on the inhospitable Planet P, Rico reflects, "we were not buying real estate to live on; we went there because the Bugs were there." At the beginning of the movie, the war journalist on Klendathu describes the planet as "hostile to life as we know it."
The term "badland" seems particularly resonant for battle sites. The movie's scenes may invoke humanity's archetypal fear of the desert, which lacks consumable water and sustainable vegetation. In various languages, people have named the filming sites "Hell" and "Bad" for centuries. Various residents and explorers of southern South Dakota deemed the land "bad" in their own languages. The native Lakota used "mako sica," literally "bad lands," while French trappers referred to the geology as "les mauvaises terres à traverser," meaning "the bad lands to cross."
The difficulty of the badlands even extends to their ability to impede travel. One of the major Badlands formations is the "Wall," and the adjacent community of Wall, South Dakota, is named for the scarp that the nearby White River eroded out of the plateau. The Wall is a formation that resembles a mountain, so substantial in its height and crumbling sediment that it blocked east-west travel like a "wall."
In identifying South Dakota's Badlands as a jarring landscape, the filmmakers utilize a surreal environment to evoke a non-Earth habitat. The park service credits Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect, as saying, "I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Bad Lands." When visiting the park, I found myself thinking that Wright's sentiment encompasses the otherworldly quality of badlands, regardless of the state, country, or planet of their location.
Paul M. Sammon's book The Making of Starship Troopers cites Allan Cameron, the movie's production designer, as saying that the filmmakers were looking for locations that hadn't been overdone in other movies, and that they were constrained by choosing sites that they could film responsibly in terms of environmental impact.
By showing us unique sites of our planet, the movie Starship Troopers gives us a sense of what it might be like dropping onto the surface of a planet we've never seen. Whether you visit one or both of the Starship Troopers filming sites, you may come away appreciating why the Bugs found the badland ecospheres so appealing. If you do go, you may want to take the advice Rico offers in the novel: "Mind the Bugs."
Before Going: check out the National Park Service's web site for detailed information about the Badlands park, including trail guides, suggested times to visit, available services, accessibility, fees, weather, and more.
Although every effort was made to guarantee the accuracy of this article at the time of its publication, it is advisable to confirm any trip plans prior to commencing travel.
Getting There: We flew into Denver, Colorado, and drove several hours into Wyoming to see Hell's Half Acre. If you visit Hell's Half Acre, pull off the Highway 20/26 toward the south; you can look out from an observation area at the parking lot.
Rapid City and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, are the Badlands' closest airports with daily flights by national carriers. From the airport, visitors can take I-90 to exit 110 or 131 to access Highway 240, the Badlands Loop Road through the park.
Climate: Bugs seem to like high desert. If you visit in the summer, be prepared for hot weather, higher altitudes in Wyoming, and thunderstorms in both states. Be sure to bring plenty of drinking water, especially if you plan to do any hiking. Sunscreen, hats, and other sun protection are definitely advisable.
Restaurants: Because restaurants and convenience stores are few and far between, you may wish to bring handy snacks. In Wyoming, interstate signs state, "42 Miles to Next Services," which means you may also want to keep your gas tank more than half full.
Fees: Access to Hell's Half Acre is presently free. Visitors must pay an entrance fee to enter Badlands National Park; prices range from $15 per vehicle for seven days up to a $80 pass good for one year's access to all national parks.
Lodging: For travel to Hell's Half Acre, among close places to stay are Thermopolis, home to Hot Springs State Park, and Casper with its Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. If you're driving to Yellowstone on Highway 20, consider stopping in Thermopolis and taking a tour of the dinosaur dig site.
Lodging can be found in the Badlands park, at Cedar Pass Lodge (check the park's web site for information on its seasonal availability), and in other surrounding South Dakota communities. The lodge also provides a restaurant. It can be a long way between towns, the lodge, and its restaurant. The park provides wind- and sun-sheltered picnic tables.
When to Go: The interstate and highway in Wyoming have many signs indicating radio stations that provide weather information with a good number of signs indicating "Return to Casper" in case of road closure, a scenario that I assume means the winter blizzards are bad. Summers have a lot of thunderstorms, which can adversely affect safe and comfortable hiking.
Photography Tips: Depending on which Badlands formations you're photographing, you may need to come in the morning or in the evening to catch the best lighting for shadows accentuating the landscape. If you want close-ups of Hell's Half Acre formations, you'll need a telephoto lens. Photographing the Badlands formations against sunset can provide spectacular results.
Nearby Sites: Badlands National Park is located near other national parks and monuments in the 150 mile radius, including Mount Rushmore, Jewel Cave, and Wind Cave, all to the west and accessible via I-90. More national park land associated with inspiring a science fiction film is located approximately 180 miles to the west and preserves the Devils Tower, the terminus and launching site of Roy Neary's journey in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).