Many moons ago, the first rumors about a possible start date on production for Star Wars: Episode VII cropped up on the web, indicating that J.J. Abrams' latest space opera enterprise might get underway early this year. More recently, it's become clear that principal shooting is on the books for May (though Disney chairman Alan Horn alleges that filming has actually already started). With all of the fits and starts in Episode VII's journey from backlots to the big screen, it's been a bit difficult to pin the film's progress down.
One thing's for certain, though: the movie will take audiences back to Tatooine, one of the most famous (or most oft-visited) locations in the Star Wars cinematic canon. In part, this appears to be a reaction to Abrams' frustration at being consigned to filming in London-based studios (which they're still going to do, of course), but there's an old custom at stake here, too, as every single Star Wars film (save for The Empire Strikes Back) has, at one point or another and to varying extents, relied on Tunisia to supply the canvas for the iconic desert planet.
But despite taking return jaunts to Tatooine's harsh, unforgiving landscape, Episode VII actually won't be returning to Africa's northernmost country after all. According to THR, production will actually touch down in Abu Dhabi instead, replicating Tatooine's climate and culture using the United Arab Emirates as a backdrop. Shooting in Abu Dhabi will reportedly take four weeks to complete.
Why the break in tradition? Turns out that Tunisia has become a slightly perilous place to visit in recent years, a signifier of the sustained political upheaval the country has been weathering since the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. How much danger that would mean for a major film production isn't totally clear, but even though transitions of power have started to come full circle with the appointment of a new technocratic government, it seems like Abrams and co. would rather be safe than sorry.
There's actually precedent for turning to the UAE as a location; following the tragic loss of Paul Walker Fast & Furious 7 made the same move after re-starting production this month, taking the cast and crew to not only Abu Dhabi but also Dubai. If James Wan can do it, then Abrams can, too, and beyond the obvious geographical elements, there may be other reasons for a movie to shoot in the Emirates (apart from reasons of security, of course).
Regardless, the change makes sense, and if nothing else, it's good to know at least one concrete detail about Star Wars: Episode VII in light of the secrecy and uncertainty surrounding it - even if this is just another example of Abrams and Disney turning to well-tread ground. With veteran cast members coming back for another go-round in the Star Wars universe, the film is starting to take shape as something very familiar, though naturally that's not necessarily a bad thing.
In Winter 2015, fans will not only get to have another theatrical experience with their favorite franchise, they'll also get to revisit one of that franchise's most recognizable settings. Seems like good reason to get excited.
Star Wars: Episode VII hits theaters on December 18th, 2015.