This article is part of a special issue on the future of Lake Powell looking at the reservoir as overallocation and severe drought dry the Colorado River. More coverage at Countdown to dead pool: Lake Powell’s uncertain future.
Oh, the recreational possibilities of Lake Powell: Crashing your spaceship, encountering Martians, gambling on a riverboat, baptizing the son of God.
Hollywood has done all of the above in Lake Powell since its creation in the 1960s. The attractive combination of red rocks and relatively still waters has been captured by filmmakers for Westerns, science-fiction films and one Biblical epic.
Here are seven productions that gave Lake Powell a prominent screen role:
“The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965) • Glen Canyon Dam was still under construction in 1962, when producer-director George Stevens opted to film his sprawling epic of the life of Christ along the Colorado River, in the area now known as Lake Powell. Portraying John the Baptist to Max Von Sydow’s Jesus, Charlton Heston stood waist-deep in the chilly water during the November shoot. According to his journals — as quoted by film historian James V. D’Arc in his book “When Hollywood Came to Town” — Heston told Stevens, “If the River Jordan had been as cold as the Colorado, Christianity would never have gotten off the ground.”
“Planet of the Apes” (1968) • Heston was back in the waters of Lake Powell a few years later, this time as astronaut George Taylor, whose capsule crash-lands on what he and his crewmates think is an alien planet where apes have knocked humanity off the evolutionary medals podium. That scene was shot at Alstrom Point, and Gunsight Butte can be seen in the background. (Perhaps as an homage, Tim Burton’s 2001 remake also filmed some scenes at Lake Powell.)
“Point Break” (1991) • Most of the action in director Kathryn Bigelow’s iconic bromance thriller — starring Keanu Reeves as an FBI agent and Patrick Swayze as the master criminal he’s pursuing and befriending — happens on ocean waves, mostly along the California coast. But one key sequence involves the characters skydiving over Lake Powell.
“Maverick” (1994) • Where does a riverboat gambler cross the river? In director Richard Donner’s remake of the classic TV Western series — this time with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster in the leads, and the TV show’s original star, James Garner, in a supporting role — on the western end of Lake Powell, near Big Water. (The riverboat scenes were shot in Oregon, where the boat the production used was located.)
“Doctor Who” (2011) • The venerable BBC science-fiction series came to Utah in 2011 for the episode “The Impossible Astronaut,” and used Lake Powell’s Lone Rock Beach — called “Lake Silencio” in the script — as the location for one of the show’s biggest shockers: The assassination of The Doctor (then played by Matt Smith). Since this is a series that involves time travel and other fantastical plot devices, The Doctor didn’t stay dead for long, though the location was a reference point for the entire sixth season.
“John Carter” (2012) • Southern Utah’s deserts stood in for Mars, aka Barsoom, in director Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ space epic. In one scene, the American soldier John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) and the Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) jump from a hovering spaceship to a river canoe — and that river sequence was shot at Lake Powell.
“Gravity” (2013) • Another time, another astronaut. At the end of Alfonso Cuaron’s space survival thriller, astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) — spoiler alert! — manages to get back to Earth, splashing down into a lake. Though the lake is never identified in the film, the final scene was shot in Lake Powell, specifically at Dominguez Butte, according to the Utah Film Commission. No apes this time, though.
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