Love story in space, life story in New York

Passengers is a competently handled romance-tinged adventure in space while Barry is an entertaining biopic on one year in Barack Obama's life

In what might be the bravest and most expensive attempt yet to lure male viewers into a romantic comedy, Passengers (PG13, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars) boasts major stars and a dazzling science- fiction backdrop.

That shiny, high-tech crust, however, barely manages to hide the sappy, monochromatic love affair at the movie's core.

Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) are among thousands of starship passengers on a 120-year journey to a new home planet.

A glitch wakes the pair 90 years too soon and they find themselves trapped and alone.

Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game, 2014; Headhunters, 2011) is brilliant at wordlessly depicting the horror of lifelong isolation facing Jim and Aurora, a pain that is not lessened by the technological wizardry around them or the company of a chatty bartender-bot Arthur (Michael Sheen).

Devon Terrell as the young Barry, a.k.a. Barack Obama. PHOTO: NETFLIX

The absurdity of a life lived cut off from human society, but pampered by computers and robot servants brings to mind Huxley's Brave New World, or the insanity-inducing conditions of isolation and claustrophobia seen in other space movies such as Moon (2009).

Midway, there is a hint that Passengers might also chart a course into trippier, more psychological territory. But the plot soon circles around planet Cuteness, before rocketing off into the Standard Action Movie galaxy.

For what it is - a romance-tinged adventure story - it is handled competently, and Lawrence and Pratt are extremely watchable as the interstellar Adam and Eve. There is a swimming pool-without- gravity scene that is close to genius. Oh, but what a waste of a brilliant stranded-in-space concept.

Back on this planet, the New York of 1981 is where young Barry (NC16, 104 minutes, now showing on Netflix, 3/5 stars), a.k.a. Barack Obama, finds himself when he enrols in Columbia University.

First-time feature director and co-writer Vikram Gandhi has called this biopic a superhero origin story, and indeed what this roughly one-year slice of the future president's life is.

Barry (Devon Terrell) comes to a city beset by crime, poverty and racial injustice.

He has lived a sheltered life, under the wing of an outspoken white feminist mother Ann (Ashley Judd) and a Nigerian father he cannot remember seeing, and whom he resents. His formative years have been spent in the non-white societies of Hawaii and Indonesia.

Biopics like this, least of all of sitting presidents, cannot hope to offer much psychological insight. At the very least, the portrayals should present the facts of the person's life in an entertaining manner.

And this is what Gandhi achieves in this lionising work, rushed out before President Obama leaves office in a few weeks.

New York is where Barry (played by Terrell with the characteristic Obama vocal hitch) finds that he is too black for whites, and too white for the black community.

Gandhi's touch is generally light and he exploits the city's ethnic mosaic with great effectiveness in the supporting cast.

There are one or two heavy-handed moments, however, that scream "life-changing!", such as when Barry is interrogated by campus security while drunk white students walk past unchecked.

But that moment also results in one of the best exchanges in the film and one that is relevant today.

There is a white classmate who insists that African-American activists are held back by their obsession with slavery, and casually states, like so many unwitting racists do, that they should just get over it.

Barry's comeback, dropped with characteristic cool intensity, is one of the film's best moments.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2016, with the headline 'Love story in space, life story in New York'. Subscribe