Thursday, 17 December 2015

Jedi geology or Sith science: the Force was calling...by Kirstin Lemon

Unless you have been living in a bubble for the past few months, you won't have failed to notice that the greatly anticipated seventh Star Wars movie has finally made its appearance in our cinemas. You can't help but get swept up in all the excitement! There has been a huge amount of debate regarding the story line; will we finally have a female Jedi (girl power!), will Luke have gone to the Dark side, and just exactly what are those new lightsabers all about?

I'll be the first to admit that up until a few years ago, I had absolutely no interest in Star Wars, in fact I had never even seen any of the movies. I was born one year after the first movie was released in 1977 so most of my friends, especially the male ones, were completely obsessed with them. I knew the characters, I think that they are a firm part of our popular culture, but I had no idea what there role was. However, that all changed a few decades later. I now have children of my own, two boys no less, and they are both Star Wars mad! For a while, I managed to simply feign interest in the movies, but one Friday night as they were watching what I now know to be Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, I happened to look up and saw something that would change my opinion of Star Wars forever. It was the famous fight scene between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, as they both battled with lightsabers whilst balanced on rocks floating on a river of lava. Something clicked that day, whether the Force was calling, or whether it was the rather impressive CGI work with the lava (let's be honest, this is more likely given that I'm a geologist), I don't know, but from then on I was hooked as well.

Over the past few years, I have been making up for lost time and have watched all of the movies more times that I can remember (although I have never watched them all in the correct order so my version of the story may be different from yours), I have been to numerous Comic Cons and have even made Star Wars gingerbread! I have also taken a great interest in the filming locations because whilst the story might be set in a galaxy far, far away, the filming has to be done here on planet Earth (for now). As always, the geology and geomorphology plays a key part in the location choice for all of the movies so just for a bit of fun, I've given a brief run down of some of the key planets and the geology of their real-life filming locations.

Tatooine
Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley, California
By far the most commonly used location for filming is Tunisia, where the desert landscape has been used to film Tatooine, the home planet of Anakin Skywalker and his son Luke.  A great number of sites were used around the city of Tozeur, where the stunning landscape provided the perfect backdrop for at least four of the movies. Some of the features include the yardangs, enlongated erosional landforms that resemble the shape of a sharks fin that were the location of the Jedi duel between Qui-Gonn Jin and Darth Maul in Episode I. One of the most famous geological features used is Star Wars Canyon or Sidi Bouhlel as it is known locally. This canyon is carved out of Middle Miocene sandstone and contains fossils of a number of vertebrates including crocodiles that provide vital evidence for changing palaeoclimate in the region. It was used during Episode IV and is where Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan Kenobi for the first time.

During the filming of Episode IV and V, shots that were scheduled for Tunisia were filmed in Death Valley, California, as production had gone over budget. Taking advantage of the typical 'badland topography' with its densely spaced drainage, deeply eroded hills, and lack of vegetation, Twenty Mule Team Canyon became the new Star Wars Canyon and was where R2-D2 was filmed as he made his way to Ben Kenobi's hut.

Kashyyyk
Tower karst in Guilin, China
The homeland of Chewbacca and the rest of the Wookies, Kashyyyk is perhaps one of the most stunning planets. No filming actually took place here, but background shots were taken from Phang Nga Bay in Thailand, and Guilin in China. These two locations are known for their breathtaking tower karst, the name given to steep sided hills of weathered limestone that typically develops in areas with thick limestone, warm wet weather and slow steady tectonic uplift. The landscape from both of these locations can be easily recognised in Episode III during the battle of Kashyyyk.

Hoth 
Everyone remembers the icy wasteland of Hoth from Episode V but it's real location was the Norwegian glacier of Hardangerjokulen and the area around the nearby town on Finse. The glacier itself is the sixth largest in Norway and is around 380m thick. It has played a significant role in the education of glaciologists over the past decades as it has been used as a base for a number of glaciology courses. Hardangerjokulen has also been the subject of a significant amount of recent research into glacier fluctuations during the Holocene period. 

Hardangerjokulen, Norway
Alderaan
Regarded as being the most Earth-like planet, Alderaan is probably most famous as being the home planet of Princess Leia. It was mentioned in both Episode I and IV, but was not actually seen until Episode III. Filming for Alderaan was done in Grindelwald, a municipality in the Swiss Alps, but also the name of  a glacially-carved valley and glacier adjacent to it. The area around Grindelwald has received a significant amount of publicity over the past few decades due to the  retreat of the Lower Grindelwald glacier.

Mustafar 
Mount Etna erupting in 2002
Last, but by no means least is Mustafar, the planet where the epic battle scene between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker took place and the one that got me hooked on Star Wars. Obviously, filming two men fighting whilst balancing on rocks floating on lava is impossible but some of the lava scenes were actually shot at Mount Etna in Sicily. Europe's largest active volcano was erupting during the filming of Episode III in 2002 so a film crew visited and got some shots of the lava flow to use as the backdrop for the planet Mustafar.

This impressive array of global filming locations has given us the planets that we know and love in the Star Wars series so far but what about Episode VII? The filming locations have been kept under wraps, although a few leaks have come through here and there. Rumour has it that filming has taken place in Iceland, and given the geological wonderland that Iceland is and the fact that it is used for a number of other science fiction movies and TV shows, then it comes as no great surprise. It has also been rumoured that filming took place at Skellig Michael, a small island off the south-west coast of Co. Kerry in Ireland. This relatively inaccessible place is a World Heritage Site as it was the location of a 6th century monastic site, perched on top of strongly deformed Devonian rocks that appear to burst up from the sea floor. A truly spectacular site but not an easy one to reach! It's been said that the producers of Episode VII have relied much less on CGI this time, and have instead used 'real' locations so let's hope we get a few geological surprises as well as a few storyline ones.

Skellig Michael, Co. Kerry, Ireland
May the force be with you.

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