x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

What Star Wars fans say is going on in Abu Dhabi’s desert

We may still not know exactly what The National caught pictures of in the Abu Dhabi desert last week, but the online community has had plenty to say. Here are some of the best bits.

This comparison image shown on Reddit annotated the objects with vehicles from the movies.
This comparison image shown on Reddit annotated the objects with vehicles from the movies.

Last week’s presumed Star Wars set photos certainly caused a stir.

For those who have been on Mars for the past few days (I would use the popular “in the desert” analogy, but it’s not such a useful one in this case,) on the evening of April 15 we published on The National’s website what appeared to be the first images of the set for Star Wars: Episode 7, which has long been rumoured to be shooting in the Abu Dhabi desert. The story also appeared in the following morning’s paper.

The film has so far been shrouded in strict secrecy, something of a given with a J J Abrams movie. No cast details have been confirmed, though we know the original trio of stars from 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope – Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher – are “expected” to appear, while Adam Driver’s rumoured appearance as a new villain seemed to be confirmed by a swiftly rescinded, congratulatory tweet from his Girls co-star Lena Dunham. Plot details are equally slim. We know the film will be set 35 years after the last film, chronologically, of the previous six, Return of the Jedi, and that’s about it.

Taking all of this into account, and adding in the obsessive nature of Star Wars’s huge fan base, it’s hardly surprising this tiny pictorial nugget went interstellar. By the weekend, the story had been picked up by national newspapers in the UK, Russia and France and online news sources all over the world. Unsurprisingly, though, it was the fan sites and forums that picked up the story first and ran with it in the way that only the online sci-fi community can. We’ve been following the online response to the story closely, so let’s take a recap of some of the key ­developments.

Compare and contrast

First of all, I’m going to hold my hands up here. In the original story in The National, I posited that the prop looked like a part of the escape pod that brought C3P0 and R2D2 to the desert planet Tatooine in the original movie, possibly the exit hatch. I still think that was a reasonable guess, but with the combined knowledge of millions of Star Wars geeks now behind me, I’m taking that back.

Rumblings of alternative theories started almost as soon as the pictures went live – it was the main hatch of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon; it was a security door from Jabba the Hutt’s hideout – but then the AT-AT’s foot theories started.

AT-ATs, or All Terrain Armoured Transports, are huge, heavily armed, mechanical walkers, much loved by fans since their first appearance in the second film in cinemas, and fifth in the series, The Empire Strikes Back. Keep up!

Next, of course, Star Wars geeks being Star Wars geeks, the blown-up shots comparing the new pictures to shots from the old movies started coming in and I have to say they, are very convincing indeed.

Abrams (allegedly) intervenes

Next up, someone leaked an alleged letter sent to every new employee of Abrams’s Bad Robot Productions. Everything starts off nicely enough: “Hello, and welcome to Bad Robot. We’re proud to have you on our team. I want to take this opportunity to welcome you to what will inevitably be a lot of fun, but also provide a cautionary.”

Then things start getting a bit dark. “We take secrecy very important [sic] at BR. If you consciously elicits [sic] information ... Not only will you cease to be employed here, but I will personally see to it that your reputation is destroyed, and that you never work in this industry again.” Blimey.

Personally, I’m dubious that a perfectionist such as Abrams would ever put a letter with such appalling grammar to his name, but it’s all part of the fun.

British connection

Then came the doubters – the shots were leaked by Abrams himself, perhaps. Or, even better, the poster who noted that he’d “been Googling” and concluded that since both Byrne Construction (a Byrne logo appears on the cabins in the shots) and the journalist who wrote the story are British, it’s probably a Byrne publicity stunt on a beach in the UK.

He’s partly right. I am British and there is a construction company called Byrne Group in the UK. Byrne Rentals LLC, however, whose actual logo appears on the buildings, is very much a Gulf company, headquartered in Dubai’s Greens. Still, full marks for trying.

Mystery continues

Intriguingly, over the weekend the official Star Wars Twitter feed posted a photo of an AT-AT in what looks like a desert, surrounded by monitors and movie paraphernalia, along with the caption: “Here we see our subject in its natural habit AT-AT” – perhaps as some kind of response to our story?

I must admit, when we broke this story last week, I thought we were finally bringing a little clarity to the fog of rumour and subterfuge surrounding the movie. As the days go by, and in a shocking example of mixed movie metaphor, it looks like the rabbit hole might just get deeper.