This desert in the Middle East is in all your favourite films
Massive budget movies are international affairs, not only in terms of rolling out the red carpet for premieres in major countries, but also flying to different locations for filming. One spot crops up time and time again though, and it’s close to home.
Filmmakers have to do a lot with the tools they’re given, we don’t yet live in an age where you can pop over to Mars to shoot your movie. Till that day comes, the next best thing for the majority of sci-fi films or just films looking for a beautiful desert landscape, is a place in Jordan.
Wadi Rum in Jordan, also known as the Valley of the Moon, is the largest wadi in Jordan and one of the most featured deserts in all of cinema. The valley is cut into the sandstone and granite, creating an almost martian-like landscape for filmmakers to play with.
Beyond its surreal appearance, it is also downright beautiful, serving as a popular backdrop to many Arab-set films.
Here’s the biggest blockbusters to have harnessed the beauty of Wadi Rum:
The Martian (2015)
Starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a stranded astronaut on Mars, The Martian is almost entirely filmed inside Wadi Rum. The film follows Watney attempting to survive alone on the desolate planet long enough for a rescue mission to retrieve him. Apart from scenes back done on Earth, the film focuses on showing the expansive Wadi Rum landscape, reinforcing the isolation Whatney finds himself in.
Largely untouched, the Rum’s natural red cliffs and sandy makeup made it a very believable Martian set.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Nominated for 10 Oscars and winning seven, along with a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA, Lawrence of Arabia is hailed as one of the greatest and most influential films in cinematic discourse. The film has been dubbed as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically siginficiant”, all of which makes sense considering it was largely filmed on site at Wadi Rum.
Based on the life of T. E. Lawrence, who spent a great deal of time in Wadi Rum, the film shows Lawrence’s experiences in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The film has a particular focus on his liaison between the Arab National Council and the British.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
Here’s a funny one, Michael Bay’s second Transformers blowy-upy adventure had numerous scenes it claimed were set in Egypt, but in actuality were filmed in Jordan at Petra and Wadi Rum. Four days were spent in Jordan filming, with the Royal Jordanian Air Force aiding in filming. King Abdullah II himself reportedly asked military helicopters to help transport film equipment into Jordan.
The film follows the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons in heat of battle searching for a machine that would destroy both the sun and Earth and give the Decepticons immense power.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) and Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Wadi Rum was used on two occasions in modern Star Wars films, in both instances standing in as the mysterious landscape for alien planets. Namely Jedha in Rogue One and Pasaana in Rise of Skywalker. Jedha was a small cold desert moon which stood as a holy site for the Jedi Order and a pilgrimage location for believers in The Force. It was one of the first places for the Death Star to trail its destructive potential.
Pasaana is another desert planet, right on the edge of the galaxy, it is home to the Aki-Aki species and a prime location in the film’s trailer.
The live-action reboot of Aladdin ticked a lot of boxes in the mission to endorse Arab cinema. One of those things was faithfully filming large parts of the film across the Middle East, including in Wadi Rum. Will Smith, who plays the Genie, is a huge advocate of the picturesque desert.
“It’s basically a love letter to the region,” he said. “When the kids see this film, I want them to immediately feel ‘ooh, I want to go there’.”
The Burdah Rock features in the film and is listed as a World Heritage Site.