WARNING: The following contains major spoilers for Ad Astra, in theaters now.
James Gray's Ad Astra is an emotional space trip that puts Brad Pitt's Major Roy McBride through a series of unfortunate events as he tries to save Earth from impending disaster. His father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), left on an expedition decades before called the Lima Project, and is now conducting antimatter experiments on Neptune which are causing electrical surges and harming Earth.
From the outset, it's clear Roy must travel across the galaxy to stop his dad, but rather than being a straight up tyrant, Clifford comes off as sympathetic, as he's obsessed with finding new life and worlds out there -- the mission he abandoned his family for. However, while Ad Astra focuses on their tumultuous relationship, the film flat out ignores its most intriguing villain, a group with the most potential called the "Pirates."
In the final act, we find out Clifford locked off oxygen and killed his crew for wanting to come back home in a mutiny, but at that point he's nothing intimidating or extraordinary because he's simply someone who lost his mind in the depths of space. Even earlier, Roy fends off rabid baboons being experimented on at a Norwegian space station as he investigates an S.O.S., but still, it's way too short and there isn't the right blend of emotional and physical trauma as with the very first enemy he encounters on the moon.
Roy's taken from Earth to the moon's station, where a rocket will then take him to Mars before he can jet off to Neptune. After his physical and mental evaluations, a rover transports Clifford and his mentor, Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), to the Mars rocket, but as it speeds across the surface of the moon, what ensues is basically a scene from the Mad Max franchise. We see the Pirates in their rovers attacking, swarming down from hills and rising up from craters. It leads to a chase, with them shooting at Roy's entourage, blasting holes through his guardians' heads. It's pretty brutal because the Pirates want hostages and rovers to add to their arsenal, so they hold nothing back.
They look like astronauts too but with dark suits instead of white ones, and this scene paints nothing short of all-out war. They ram Roy's rover around and he has to commandeer it after his driver gets killed, with Max Richter's sound editing for deep space evoking Roy's rising heartbeat (something he's known to control which makes him a super-astronaut of sorts). But these Pirates certainly jar him as his communications officers over the radio relay these villains have to be killed. Roy eventually grabs a gun and starts shooting like it's the Wild West, but what's so engaging is the air of mystery to the Pirates, leaving him clueless as to what he's encountering.
Earlier on, the Pirates are mentioned in passing, but we never find out who they are, how they got there in the first place and how they've been collecting all this tech. They could have been space workers who went mad on the moon like Clifford on Neptune, but it's worth noting the moon's society looks just like the one back on Earth, which sickens Roy. It's a train station, and he's ticked they just brought the ills of society up to the moon when they should have transcended and advanced civilization. Roy even shows sympathy towards the Pirates after he escapes, hinting he understands their anarchy. He despises how humanity has become "world eaters" (even as we're now colonizing other planets), so it would have been nice to see him meet like-minded individuals who may have had the same mentality.
Roy interacting with these Pirates could have led to stirring debates on mankind's philosophies, the caste system and societal divides, and provided such a perfect foil to riff off. He saw humanity as monsters and was merely abiding by their rules, so maybe the Pirates were the Resistance looking to unplug people, a la the revolution in The Matrix movies. Sadly, we'll never know more of them, but the Pirates turn out to be one of the few things Roy's afraid of. Ad Astra could have thrown us for a loop with some thought provoking political commentary in space via this rebellion.
Directed by James Gray from a script by himself and Ethan Gross, Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Nega, Liv Tyler and Donald Sutherland. The film is in theaters now.