Many important factors go into a movie that decides if it’s successful. Of course, there’s the plot, the characters and their arcs, and the emotion that can elicit, whether it be laughter or tears. One aspect that is not considered as often, however, is the way the world is built in the movie. While that is irrelevant in some, like those that take place in the typical, realistic modern day, it becomes more important when the movie has any fantasy, sci-fi, or period elements to it.
In these types of movies, the world-building in it can make or break the film’s success. The world needs to be logical, believable, and interesting to keep the audience’s attention. Movies that can build unique, engaging worlds are the ones that are most memorable and change the face of cinema. Here are a few movies where the detailed world-building sucks the audience right into the scenes.
Updated on August 28th, 2023, by Nikole Finger: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
15 Hocus Pocus (1993)
Sometimes a film will create a whole new world, but some just add something special and magical to the real world. This is what Hocus Pocus does. The iconic Halloween cult classic started out being a pretty humble, and surprisingly dark, Disney movie, but part of why it stands out so much compared to most other movies from Disney Channel is the detailed world-building. The story starts in Salem during the witch trials and continues to the (then) modern day.
The witches become a legend in the town, and the best character, Binx, has been guarding their house for decades to keep them from coming back. While it may have scared some viewers when they were young, there is a reason why they have come back year after year. The world of magic and cute talking cats is a fun one to get enthralled with.
14 Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl kicked off a franchise that surprised everyone. It isn’t exactly common for movies based on their park rides to become massive successes, and not to spur multiple sequels.
However, the vast world of pirates, endless oceans, and cursed treasure drew in a large audience, with the help of Johnny Depp’s fun character design. The music helped create an atmosphere that was authentic to the period, and the crew made great efforts to make the ships feel real and true to the era. As the sequels were released, the Pirates lore only grew.
13 Thor (2011)
Although it may not be the most popular movie in the MCU, Thor was the first to delve into the expansive world the Avengers were about to find themselves in. Despite the overuse of the Dutch angle and the tilted camera placement that is meant to make an audience feel off balance, the world-building is quite detailed and well done.
Not only did viewers get to see Asgard, as well as several other realms, Thor explained to Jane, and the audience, how all of these worlds are connected. While the MCU is now being criticized for pushing world-building too far, jumping headfirst and fast into the concept of a multiverse, Thor set a great example of how to build upon an alien world while also keeping things grounded.
12 Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is the first of the movies in the trilogy that revolutionized high fantasy cinema. It follows Frodo, a hobbit from the peaceful Shire, as he and his friends are dragged into the war with the evil Sauron by Gandalf, the wizard. Frodo must carry the one ring that Sauron is desperately seeking with him as they try to reach Rivendell, the city of elves, to figure out what to do with it. Ultimately, a group of elves, dwarves, humans, and hobbits is formed to take the ring to Mount Doom, where it can be destroyed.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring introduces all the races of Middle Earth, their cultures, and the beautiful locations in which they live. The scenery of the movie is strong, displaying the unique architecture for each area in which the different races reside. For example, The Shire is the epitome of relaxation and isolation, with an abundance of nature and bright green grass camouflaging the roofs of the Hobbits’ homes. It’s easy to see the simplicity that the Hobbits desire in their lives just from where they live.
11 Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Star Wars: A New Hope revolves around Luke Skywalker as he, Obi-Won, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and two droids attempt to rescue Princess Leia from the grasp of the Empire, the notoriously cruel side in the galactic civil war.
Star Wars: A New Hope is the movie responsible for the creation of one of the most famous, intricate universes in cinema. It introduces Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and of course, the iconic, Darth Vader, as well as a variety of alien species and planets. Perhaps most importantly, it also showcases the powers and practices of the Jedi and the Sith and the ongoing war between them. This movie spawned three separate trilogies in that universe, as well as countless shows and standalone movies.
10 Avatar (2009)
Avatar was a box office smash not because of its story, but because of the beautiful world that it created for the audience. When the Earth is depleted of its resources, it turns to the moon Pandora, where there is an abundance of resources, as well as the Na’vi people. While it’s inhabitable to humans, the government has found a way around that by creating avatars to resemble Na’vi so that compatible humans can pilot remotely. Jake Sully is chosen for this mission to replace his deceased brother to gather intel on the Na’vi. Things change when he sees the beauty of Pandora and its people, and even more so when he falls in love with Neytiri, one of the Na’vi.
Avatar could not have done a better job depicting the world of Pandora. Not only is it incredibly visually stunning, but it also presents the Na’vi people with a rich culture of traditions and respect for the nature of the moon, which, to them, is alive. The Hometree, in particular, is represented beautifully as the center of all life on Pandora. The unique trials that Jake goes through to be accepted by the Na’vi also make it feel like the audience is there and a part of the gorgeous world.
9 Black Panther (2018)
Black Panther revolves around T’Challa, the Black Panther after his father dies, and he returns to Wakanda to take his place on the throne. Within the MCU, Wakanda is one of the more complex and beautiful settings that any of the movies take place in.
Because Wakanda had access to Vibranium due to a meteor, they were able to advance their technology to the point that it was miles ahead of the rest of the world. However, because they kept it a secret and were able to isolate themselves with natural geography, they were never bothered by other countries trying to steal the resources, which allowed their culture to flourish, as well. It feels like an entirely different world is introduced with the mixture of technology and tradition that Wakanda boasts.
8 Dune (2021)
Dune is the first installment of what will be multiple movies based on the popular Sci-Fi book series of the same name. It follows Paul, the son of Duke Leto, and his concubine, Jessica, who is part of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood that has advanced physical and mental abilities, as well as a strong, unseen hold on the rest of the galaxy. These traits are passed down to Paul, and he is believed to be a prophesied messiah figure to bring peace to the world.
The majority of the movie takes place on Arrakis, a harsh and unforgiving desert planet, where water is precious, spice is the most valuable export, and sandworms are ready to destroy anyone and anything in their path. It’s also home to the Freeman, a group of people who are skilled fighters who have a deep connection to the planet. What Dune does best in its world-building is the way it shows the intricate power struggles within the different Houses and the introduction of the mysterious Bene Gesserit, who seem to have their own strict rules and traditions that they follow. One of the most memorable scenes is when Paul meets the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit, who gives Paul a confounding test that results in death if he fails.
7 John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is the third installment of the John Wick franchise. It continues the story of John, the retired assassin who quickly came out of retirement after his wife died of illness. She gifted him a puppy so that he wouldn’t have to grieve her alone, but while some gangsters were stealing his car, they also killed the last gift his wife ever gave him. This sets him off on a quest for revenge, setting off a series of events that brings him to the third movie, where he’s on the run and every assassin in the world is after him.
The first two movies did an excellent job setting up a universe that explores the secretive lives of assassins, establishing The Continental as a safe house for them, as well as a wealth of resources for their missions. There are a lot of secrets that only assassins are privy to, as well as various codes that they have to follow, like the concept of having a marker that they are blood-bound to honor. However, it’s the third movie that opens up the world, delving further into the governing body of all assassins around the world, the High Table. Most importantly, it shows the consequences of crossing them.
6 Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
There is no more impressive world-building than when a film builds an entire world. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit? the film had to create a world of cartoons connected to the real world.
The two realities were merged beautifully by the filmmakers and actors, who had the challenge of getting the props, sets, and sight lines to all reflect an animated character they would have to add in post. Their work paid off though, as they made a film where it feels natural to have toons and live-action actors working together, traveling between Hollywood and Toontown with ease.
5 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in a post-apocalyptic desert world where a warlord, Immorten Joe, is hoarding all the water and resources, leaving very little for his people. He has absurdly loyal followers who would sacrifice themselves for him and a group of wives that he horribly abuses. One day, his lieutenant, Furiosa, betrays him to try and help his wife escape. It’s on the run where they meet Max, a man who is traumatized and haunted by all the people he wasn’t able to help. He begrudgingly joins their cause and ultimately inspires them to fight back against Immorten Joe.
Mad Max: Fury Road fills out the post-apocalyptic world wonderfully, displaying just how foregone society has come and what they’re willing to do to survive. A definite highlight is the character’s appearances, which paint a picture of their lives, from the severely chapped lips and deformations of the citizens under Immorten Joe’s rule, to the pure white gowns that the wives wear, paired with their long hair and obvious hydration.
4 Shrek 2 (2004)
Shrek 2 continues the story of Shrek and Fiona, who are now married after the events of the first movie. They receive an invitation from Fiona’s parents to visit them in the kingdom of Far Far Away, where they are surprised to find out that both Fiona and Shrek are ogres. It had been their intention for Prince Charming to save Fiona from the tower, and true love’s kiss would turn Fiona into a human full-time. Fiona’s father, the Fairy Godmother, and Prince Charming are not happy about the way things turned out and attempt to sabotage Shrek and Fiona’s marriage to get the happy ending that they intended.
Shrek set up the world of fairytale creatures, princesses, and ogres well, but Shrek 2 expands the universe more fully. The kingdom of Far Far Away introduces many new key, interesting characters, like the Fairy Godmother, Prince Charming, Puss in Boots, and the King and Queen, Fiona’s parents. It shows more of what society is like, including the cutthroat factory that Fairy Godmother owns to create potions and the politics of what it takes to get a happily ever after.
3 Jurassic Park (1993)
There are some movies where everything comes together to tell a near-perfect story, and Jurassic Park is one of them. While it may not seem that hard to build a world within a story where someone made dinosaurs on an island, although that isn’t exactly easy, no one cut any corners. What sets this film apart from others is the details that went into building a brand for the park within the movie.
There are logos, themed merchandise set up in the gift shops, brightly colored tour vehicles, and the iconic Mr. DNA. The exposition of how the park came to be is incorporated into the story in a very organic way. The characters go on theme park attractions that are meant to teach the theoretical park guests all about Jurassic Park. After the final escape from the island, the audience feels the same relief that the characters do, because they were drawn into the world along with them.
2 Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy introduces a brand-new (to the MCU) team that includes half-human Peter Quill, Gamora, the assassin, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket the Raccoon, and Groot, the tree humanoid. The story begins with Quill stealing a mysterious orb, setting off the powerful Ronan to attempt to get it back. He sends Gamora, who, unbeknownst to him, doesn’t want the orb to fall into his hands, and eventually works with Quill to keep it away from him. With the help of the others, they must elude all of Ronan’s attacks and attempts to steal it back.
Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the first movies in the MCU to truly explore life in outer space. There is a huge array of alien species that they introduce to the world, as well as a variety of interesting planets and outposts, like Knowhere, a lawless society that was created on top of the head of a Celestial.
1 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone follows the young orphan, Harry, who discovers that he’s a wizard and enrolls in the magical academy, Hogwarts. He finally learns about his past, how his parents died, and how he defeated the evil Lord Voldemort when he was just a baby. He also learns about the world of magic, is taught to use his powers properly, and uncovers a darkness that is lurking in the school.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the first movie of eight that explores the now iconic magical world that Harry lives in. The audience is in just as much awe as Harry as he travels to Diagon Alley to get his unorthodox school supplies, including his owl Hedwig, and the unique wand that chooses him at Ollivander’s. Hogwarts is full of mysticism with its moving stairways, floating candles, talking portraits, and food that seemingly appears out of nowhere. However, one of the most fun aspects of this world is the different types of classes that Harry gets to take to develop his powers, like transfiguration and charms.