Numerous films and television shows have been shot on location in Hawaii, from Waikk Beach to Honolulu and the N Pali Coast. The Islands can be seen as a stand-in for the jungles of Nigeria, wartime Vietnam, Jurassic Park’s Isla Nublar, or an arena for The Hunger Games, depending on the film.
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To help you narrow down your options, we’ve put up a list of our top 10 favorite and least favorite films and television episodes shot in Hawai’i. You won’t find Aloha from Hawai’i via Satellite, Hawaii-themed episodes of TV shows like The Brady Bunch or Mad Men, or programs that take place in Hawai’i but aren’t actually filmed here (2002’s animated Lilo & Stitch was primary illustrated in Florida, and Cloud Atlas featured a future Kona that was actually shot on a Mediterranean island) in this list. If you’d like to learn more about the local film business, including an interview with Moana screenwriters Aaron and Jordan Kandell, pick up a copy of HONOLULU’s October issue.
10. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
After a recent breakup, music composer Peter (Jason Segel) decides to go on vacation to Hawai’i with his new rockstar boyfriend Kristen Bell (Kristen Bell) in order to get his life back on track. Unfortunately, the two find up bumping into each other while they’re on vacation (Russell Brand). Unlike Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, which largely takes place at Turtle Bay, Marshall seeks to honor the unique culture of the area. Actor Branscombe Richmond, a Native Hawaiian and Native American from Hawai’i, and sumo wrestler Teila Tuli, a Samoan from L’ie, both appear in notable sequences at a bar and a luau.
Marshall in Hawai’i screenwriter Segel (who penned the film’s screenplay in Hawaii) also managed to portray certain local idiosyncracies, like the bartender who relocated here from Oakland and prides himself on being able to name over 200 varieties of fish (“Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, yeah!”). Kunu (a word that meaning “cough” in Hawaiian) is a Mainland transplant who changes his name from Chuck to Kunu and becomes a surf instructor.
Over dinner at Turtle Bay, Sarah tries to disrespect receptionist Rachel (Mila Kunis), and the conversation turns into a debate on the state of Hawai’i itself:
While Hawaii is beautiful, Sarah thinks she’ll only be there for a week or so. To go any further would drive me insane, as Hawai’i is a haven for those who can’t handle the realities of everyday life.
This is a problem, because there aren’t many personal shoppers or pet therapists in the area. Honestly, it’s a grueling existence. Suddenly, she kisses Peter and eats some cake.) It’s a good place to live.
9. Blue Hawai‘i (1961)
Elvis Presley made three films in Hawai’i in the 1960s: Girls! Girls! Girls! in 1962, Paradise, Hawaiian Style in 1965, and this goofy love musical in 1961. On the other hand, he portrays a twenty-something surfer who has just come out of the military and whose mother (Angela Lansbury, only 36 at the time) wants him to take over his father’s Great Southern Hawaiian Fruit Company, but he prefers to work as an interpreter for his girlfriend. After deciding to provide tourist services for the fruit company’s mainland salesmen, they marry both their careers (and Presley marries his girlfriend, too). Look at the rise of commercial tourism in Hawai’i, which in 2017 was a $16 billion industry for the state of Hawaii.
In the end, Blue Hawai’i does nothing more than perpetuate the myth that the Islands are “paradise,” which has permeated the island’s identity for centuries. However, this film is remarkable for being one of the first to do so, putting the 50th state (which was just two years established at the time of the film’s premiere) on the map as a tourist destination for Americans. It also represents the beginning of Hawai’i’s relationship with Elvis Presley, whose following concerts would generate funds for the USS Arizona Memorial and whose image would become synonymous with Hawai’i during the 1960s. Lani Kai and Hilo Hattie appear in brief appearances. When elder baby boomers think of Honolulu, they often conjure up images of Blue Hawai’i.
8. From Here to Eternity (1953)
It’s a battle of valor versus cowardice, enlisted versus commissioned military class structure, and a dedication to duty, even when faced with corruption in Burt Lancaster’s From Here to Eternity. With its scathing and critical look at the American military at a time when McCarthyism and Communism worries were in full flow across the country, From Here to Eternity, based on author James Jones’ 800-plus-page novel, struck a chord with audiences when it opened in 1953. There were 13 Academy Award nominations for Eternity, but only eight won — the best picture award went to Frank Sinatra, best director, best screenplay, and best supporting actor for his work in the film. Oahu locations including Schofield Barracks, Khi Beach Park, and Hlona Beach Cove provided an authentic view at the hardships encountered by American soldiers stationed in the Hawaiian Islands during World War II.
At Hlona Beach Cove, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s embrace in the surging sea is undoubtedly the most memorable beach scene in cinema (now widely known as Eternity Beach).
7. The Byrds of Paradise (1994)
The plot of The Byrds of Paradise, in which a father moves to Hawaii with his three children after the death of his wife, seems like a Lifetime movie. TV dramas have done this many times before, but doing so carefully in Hawai’i was something people hadn’t seen before. While Seth Green and Jennifer Love-Hewitt starred in this ABC series, which explored Hawai’i culture from quarantine to tsunami preparations, it was done in a truthful manner. In one episode, the school staged a rendition of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in pidgin, as a tribute to local culture. Byrds of Paradise was canceled after just 12 episodes, which may have been a sign that the show was too foreign for fans in the mid-’90s. As a result, it paved the way for other shows like Everwood and Gilmore Girls, which had similar plotlines and may have helped recast the idea of Hawaii as a place where people can go to relax.
6. The Descendants (2011)
Is the story of Matthew King (George Clooney) deciding whether or not to sell his family’s Kauai property going to make for an insightful film about the state of Hawaii? But The Descendants, which premiered in 2011, was an unexpectedly poignant film. It’s not as startling as you would think: Alexander Payne, the writer and director of the critically acclaimed films Sideways, About Schmidt, and Election, has adapted Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel for the screen. The Descendants could have gone awry, but instead, it’s a film that resonates. With The Descendants, you feel like you’ve known this family for a long time, and it becomes an introspective trip that reminds us of the importance of family and perseverance. Even though you live on an island, you are not an island.
5. Jurassic Park (1994)
There is no Isla Nublar in Michael Crichton’s original novel and later films, but the true majesty of the Ko’olau Range on O’ahu and Waimea Canyon on Kauai bring the island of Jurassic Park to life. While the Kualoa Ranch shots are what most people associate with Steven Spielberg’s work, he filmed on Kaua’i, Maui, Oahu, and even Ni’ihau. On the island of Kauai, the crew of Jurassic Park rode out Hurricane Iniki in September 1992 among islanders. A few rainy sequences were really shot during the hurricane, and the storm spared actor Samuel L. Jackson a protracted death scene when the movie’s visitor center was damaged by the hurricane. While not on-screen, Jurassic Park had a significant impact on the Hawai’ian economy, as well as spawning further Jurassic Park films including 1997’s The Lost World, 2015’s Jurassic World, and 2018’s The Fallen Kingdom.
“I guarantee you’ll never look at birds the same way again”: Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and two kids observe Gallimimus dinosaurs rushing through a valley from beneath a fallen tree. On tours of Kualoa Ranch’s Hollywood production locations, you can still hide behind it.
4. Magnum, P.I. (1980–1988)
In 2018, a Spanish colonial palace in Waimnalo, Hawai’i, that was erected in 1933 was demolished, making headlines in the island state. “Robin’s Nest” was the home of Hawaii’s most renowned fictional private investigator, Thomas Magnum, played by Tom Selleck for many years (a role which famously prevented the actor from playing Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark). To go along with Magnum P.I.’s caterpillar-thick mustache, Detroit Tigers baseball caps, and a cherry red Ferrari 308 GTS, the mansion served as the show’s visual hallmark.
Unlike Miami Vice and other “serious” detective shows of the time, Magnum was allowed to connect with local culture, frequently jokingly reflecting on the strange characters who found their way to Hawai’i and the excessively opulent lifestyles of wealthy expats in the Islands.. Aloha shirts, on the other hand, have never looked better on a Hawaiian.
Frank Sinatra guest stars in the season 7 episode, “Laura,” in which he searches for his granddaughter’s killer. It takes set on Hotel Street, which is littered with historic Chinatown strip clubs including Club Hubbu Hubbu, Benny’s Danceland and the Esquire Theater (where Lucky Belly is today).
3. Lost (2004–2010)
It is rare that a show uses O’ahu to such an extent as ABC’s Lost did with the island’s enigmatic and time-traveling characters (or the Others). Since its debut in 2004, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof’s surreal sci-fi series has been nominated for more than 250 accolades including 54 Emmy Awards. A new opportunity to see friends and family members appear as extras and for Hawai’i’s locales to double as any other place in the world greeted islanders each week as they tuned into the show. As a result of Lost’s portrayal of the genuine spectrum of “looks” that Hawai’i could convey, new TV programs were brought here to film.
The initial sequence of the pilot episode, in which Jack wakes up on Mokul’ia Beach and meets the other crash survivors, is one of the most iconic scenes in Hawaiian film and television history. Much, much, much, MUCH more bizarre things were to come when Oceanic Flight 815 was burned to ashes on Oahu’s North Shore in 2004.
2. Picture Bride (1995)
In the early 20th century, thousands of mostly Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean women traveled to Hawai’i to marry immigrant laborers based solely on family recommendations and photographs. Picture Bride was directed by Honolulu-based filmmaker and activist Kayo Hatta and co-written by her sister, Mari. First-generation immigrants passed down true stories from their grandmothers, and the Hatta sisters were able to capture their generation’s hopes and dreams for a better future by telling their own stories of emigration from their native countries.
In 1995, this was a groundbreaking Asian American film. On Oahu, the film was filmed in the Waialua cane fields and featured performances by actors Youki Kudoh, Tamlyn Tomita, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (as well as cameos by Jason Scott Lee, Yoko Sugi, Ni’ihau-born musician Moe Keale, taiko artist Kenny Endo, and legendary actor Toshiro Mifune in one of his final roles). Hawai’i and Japanese spiritual lore inspired Hatta and Glen Grant to assist infuse the film with an air of magical realism.
When Kayo Hatta walked around Kawailoa Camp, the recently closed location of Picture Bride’s filming and production offices, the day after the film’s Hawai’i premiere, she realized the site might become a golf course and that the only canefields future generations would see might be in films like [Picture Bride].” She was correct in many respects.
At a bon festival in Hawai’i, the plantation workers dance together in a circle, having made peace and found a new meaning in their life in the island state.
1. Hawai‘i Five-0 (1968–1980)
In 1980, when the first Hawai’i Five-0 ended its run, it was the longest-running police drama in American television history and broke many of the genre’s rules. Like other cop shows, it didn’t take place in New York City or Los Angeles, and the most of the filming wasn’t done on a studio or backlot. A special state task force based on a real police organization that existed during martial law in Hawaii in the 1940s was featured on Hawai’i Five-0 each week as Steve McGarrett and the Five-0 team worked to bring justice to Hawaii.
When Hawai’i Five-0 debuted in 1968, the state of Hawai’i had only been in existence for nine years. The casting of locals in major roles was unusual for the 1960s; former HPD officer Kam Fong Chun played Detective Chin Ho Kelly, burly comedian Gilbert Lani Kauhi (aka Zulu) played Kono Kalakaua, and Hilo-born Herman Wedemeyer played Sgt. Duke Lukela. All three actors were Hawaiian-born (in the 2010 revival, this character is played by Dennis Chun, the son of Kam Chun). After Hawai’i Five-0 was cancelled, Magnum, P.I. was developed to employ the production facilities that had been built for Five-0, in order to keep the show on the air. Even after more than 50 years of reruns and a 2010 reboot, Hawai’i Five-0 remains the gold standard for Hawaiian films and television.