Warning: Minor spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ahead
Rogue One may be the dramatization of Star Wars’ opening crawl, showing how the Rebels stole the plans to the first Death Star and giving us Darth Vader at the best he’s been since 1983 (heck, this is the best film from the series since then), but at its heart it is, like every previous entry in the series, a story about family. Our hero is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), and her mission – starting the Rebellion on their track to victory by stealing the Death Star plans – is driven by her estranged scientist father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen).
In the film we see Galen playing the role of an obedient Imperial stooge, while secretly building an Achilles heel into the Death Star. On-the-run miscreant Jyn becomes a rallying Rebel hero, finding herself at first reluctantly the center of galactic events, yet by following a trail left by her father ending up more impassioned than the Rebellion top brass.
But what brought Papa and Stardust to this point? What’s their full story and what does it mean in the vast backdrop of Star Wars? Let’s find out.
Galen, the Republic Scientist Tricked by the Empire
Much of the Erso family’s backstory was elaborated upon in Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel, the tie-in book written by James Luceno released in mid-November that charts the Clone Wars, the fall of the Republic and rise of the Empire through the lens of Krennic, Galen and the Death Star project. As we’ve covered before, there are some big reveals in the book that relate not just to Rogue One, but the transition between prequel and original trilogies, but here we’ll focus on those pertaining to Galen.
The Erso that Catalyst introduces is a Republic scientist before and during The Clone Wars who specializes in crystals – specifically kyber crystals, which hold immense power and which he believes can be used as the source of sustainable energy. However, with kyber crystals being Jedi artefacts – as stated in the film, their primary purpose is to power lightsabers – Galen is unable to access any, so as a result his work is mostly focused on constructing synthetic crystals, which doesn’t work too well. Things become worse when the Ersos’ homeworld switches sides, leading to Galen and his wife, Lyra, being held hostage and their daughter, Jyn, being born in captivity. They’re eventually saved by Orson Krennic, an old friend of Galen’s from the Republic’s Futures Program.
While this is happening, production on the Death Star has already begun based on the plans developed by the Separatists seen in Attack of the Clones. The whole thing operates like a Cold War parallel, with Palpatine forming a Strategic Advisory Cell to develop the space station by using the threat of the enemy getting there first as a motivator. When it becomes clear the superlaser is simply not possible with modern tech, Krennic, a member of the taskforce, tries to get Galen’s kyber knowledge. This takes time, but once the Republic falls and the Jedi Order with it, he can offer crystal access as a bargaining chip.
It was rumored for a long time in the movie’s development that Galen was going to be an Oppenheimer-esque figure. Oppenheimer created the technology used for the A-bomb and, after witnessing the horrors he’d unknowingly caused, famously remarked “now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” – and it’s in this pre-movie period where that occurs. Galen takes Krennic’s bait and develops the kyber tech believing it for a greater good – around this point is when Jyn’s dream of her family and Krennic on Coruscant takes place – only to eventually discover how nefarious the new Empire’s goals are.
As a result, he goes on the run with his family, helped by increasingly militarized rebel Saw Gerrera. The family takes refuge on Lah’mu, living in secret as farmers.
Galen Captured; Jyn Scorned
This brings us to Rogue One’s prologue, set a few years on from Galen’s desertion (around five years into the Empire’s rein). By this point the superlaser project has stalled and Galen is the only one who can continue the work, so Krennic, who has taken control of the project, hunts him down. The conversation between Galen, Lyra and Krennic is weighted by the events of Catalyst, but all semblance of former friendliness has gone.
As he elaborates in the movie, Galen quickly discovers that the superweapon is further along than the Empire realizes and concludes that the only way to stop its deployment is to act begrudgingly compliant on the project and secretly hold it back. Eventually, he manages to hide a small fault that, if manipulated, could bring the whole station down.
By this point, his daughter is a fugitive. She became Saw’s ward for a period, with the militant rebel training her up and keeping her safe for the next ten-or-so years, but as his cause became more violent and talk of Galen’s treachery more well-known, he left her behind. Over the next few years she learnt to fend for herself, all the while growing resentment from Galen and Saw, two father figures who failed to protect her.
The Symbolism of the Ersos
A key theme of the film is the power of time, and while Tarkin’s raising of it is mainly aimed at how the Rebel Alliance can slowly build itself up, it’s also true of Galen’s long-term plotting. Jyn’s story deals with similar elements, especially in regards to the conflict. She goes through life constantly being knocked back, forced to suffer the very worst the galaxy has to offer, and begins to hate the world – especially Saw and Galen – for it. As we begin Rogue One her singular purpose is survival, but across the film’s runtime she finds something greater than herself to believe in (which chimes with the Force religion allusions).
With that in mind, what the Ersos really represent is hope. Her father, who hasn’t seen his daughter in fifteen years (and doesn’t even know if she’s still alive), pins everything on Jyn – a gesture that proves to be crucial as the film plays out.
Of course, beyond this film, Galen is an essential part of the Star Wars mythos; it was his actions, not Imperial hubris, that created the Death Star’s weakness. It was in the grand scheme only a slight input, but that only deepens the significance of the Erso family as an emblem of Star Wars‘ core themes. The notion of small beginnings leading to massive events is a beautifully neat summary of the Erso family on a galactic scale. By all accounts they were just a small Republic/Empire family, but their affection for each other enabled them to facilitate the fall of an Empire.