Star Wars: Episode VII evidence in Abu Dhabi desert

After more than a week of speculation, The National has what are believed to be the first photos of a Star Wars shoot in the Abu Dhabi desert.

Rolling out the structure for the set. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
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The National photographer Mona Al Marzooqi has captured what are believed to be the first images of Star Wars: Episode VII set deep in the Abu Dhabi desert.

The photos, taken on Tuesday morning in the dunes near Qasr Al Sarab resort, reveal a large encampment of tents with four to five workers moving around what appear to be parts of a filmset.

It is one piece of equipment in particular, however, that is the most suggestive: a giant, round, grey disc, which bears a striking resemblance to parts of an escape pod on which C3P0 and R2D2 crash-landed on Tatooine in the original, 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope film.

Tatooine is the desert-like planet that is the home of Anakin and Luke Skywalker, Jabba the Hutt and the famous hangout, the Mos Eisley Cantina, in the series.

According to sources within the local film industry, crew members have already been hired for the Abu Dhabi leg of the secret production.

However, no one at the petrol station, two cafes and two shops in the closest town, Himeem, had any inkling of a nearby movie set or unusual construction.

“I live around here, it’s totally my home area and I’m sure if anything as big as that was going on I’d know about it,” said an Emirati farmer.

“I’m always here, and I’ve definitely seen nothing like that. It’s just business as usual.”

At the beginning of April, Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn confirmed that Episode VII had already begun filming and that most of the cast had been chosen, although Disney and Lucasfilm have not revealed who will appear in the film.

Peter Mayhew is expected to reprise his role as the Wookie Chewbacca, with Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher likely to return as Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. Other names floated in connection to the project are Girls star Adam Driver and recent Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o, from 12 Years a Slave.

Star Wars may not be the highest grossing movie franchise of all time, but it is probably the most loved, with some of the most dedicated fans in moviedom to its name.

Since Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and the rest first spacewalked on to screens they have won over generations of fans, while the evil Darth Vader with his stormtrooper henchmen is surely one of, if not the, most iconic film villains of all time.

The announcement that episode seven would be happening, following Disney’s 2012 takeover of Lucasfilm, was greeted with delight by existing fans. Lucasfilm boss and Star Wars creator George Lucas had previously indicated he would not be continuing the series.

So far the production has released no location details beyond that it would shoot at its Pinewood Studios headquarters near London, where the earlier films were also made, while the director JJ Abrams is notoriously secretive about his work.

His previous film, Star Trek Into Darkness, engaged fans in an elaborate game of misinformation including insisting Benedict Cumberbatch wasn't playing Khan, which he was. Reports have emerged that the windows to his office were even blacked out while he worked on the Star Wars script. Twofour54, the most likely local production partner for an operation of this size, has declined to comment.

An Abu Dhabi Tatooine shoot would mark the first time the fictional planet has not been housed in Tunisia. The remnants of the first Tatooine set lie in the Tunisian Sahara desert, north-west of the city of Tozeur.

The old Star Wars set was built in 1976 by George Lucas and remains intact as per the direction of the Tunisian government. Thousands of tourists visit each year. Lucas took the name for his Jedi planet from another Tunisian town, Tataouine, in the south.

Star Wars: Episode VII is due in cinemas on December 18 next year.