K-Pax (2001) Movie Review

The immediate question brought up by K-Pax is rather the character Prot is an alien visiting from the planet K-Pax 10,000 light years from Earth or is he just a tortured soul repressing unhappy memories from his past. This is the question that many people who watches director Iain Softley’s K-Pax will ask, although they will have quickly realized 2/3rds of the way into the film that the question is moot, because it really doesn’t matter if Prot is an alien or a human loon.

K-Pax stars Kevin Spacey as Prot, a disheveled looking man wearing dark shades who seems to appear out of thin air at a New York train station. He finds himself arrested and thrown in a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. There, tests are run on him that produces odd results, baffling the staff. Prot claims to be an alien visiting Earth, and will have to return home soon, and this supposedly accounts for the strange results. Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges) is given Prot’s case, and the good doctor, unconvinced of Prot’s claims, attempts to break through Prot’s barrier and discover the real reason Prot is playing alien. Meanwhile, in the hospital background, Prot begins to have strange (and positive) affects on the rest of Powell’s patients.

So is Prot an alien or isn’t he?

K-Pax is adapted from the novel of the same name by Gene Brewer. Not having read the book, I can’t say rather the movie is a faithful adaptation, but judging by the movie alone, I must say that I enjoyed Prot’s story tremendously. Although Prot takes center stage with his many eccentricities — such as eating fruit without peeling — much of the movie’s reflective moments come with Bridges’ Powell and his family. The female head of the Powell household is Rachel (Mary McCormack), who is feeling more than a little ignored by her husband.

The couple has 3 kids but they mind as well have none from all (or lack thereof) the amount of quality time dad spends at home and with the family. Even when they’re together, they’re emotionally in different worlds. It’s an ironic twist to see Powell attempt to cure his patients of all their problems while he seems oblivious to his own. His marriage is disintegrating before his eyes — or our eyes, as Powell doesn’t seem to notice.

Kevin Spacey, as Prot, gives an ambiguous performance, but a very charming one. We’re never sure if he is an alien or if he just thinks he’s an alien. In a way, one gets the feeling even Prot isn’t sure. When Powell begins performing regression hypnosis on Prot, information starts to come to light that sheds suspicion on Prot’s claim of being an alien.

So is he or isn’t he an alien? Powell is determined to find out, but Prot seems undisturbed by the prospect of being “uncovered.” You see, Prot’s waiting for a specific date to return home on a “beam of light.” As Prot’s people, K-Paxians, have already mastered the art of traveling by light, he can come and go as he wishes. Unfortunately, there’s so much “light travel” going on in space that Prot has to wait for a specific window to travel back home. What causes trouble for Powell and the hospital staff is that Prot has promised to take one of the many eccentric patients in the hospital home with him. Who will it be? Is Prot even an alien? Is he crazy? Is light travel really possible?

K-Pax has no clear answers. Even when Powell makes a tremendous discovery, the question of Prot’s “real” identity remains a mystery. Is he or isn’t he? Writer Charles Leavitt and director Softley tells us it doesn’t matter, because that question is only a McGuffin. The real story is about focus.

The movie’s main theme (and its recurring motif) concerns light travel and light itself. What does light do? Light clears out darkness. Light makes what is hidden visible. Light brings things into focus. And that is the real point of K-Pax. It’s about the little things in life that we lose focus of. One of those things is family. As Powell attempts to diagnose Prot, he never once considers diagnosing himself. His life is unfocused, as are the lives of most of the people in the hospital. Are these patients really crazy or have they just lost focus of what matters most? Prot brings things into focus for everyone, including Powell. Is this the work of an alien or someone who has convinced himself that he’s an alien, and thus can perform “alien-like” miracles. Is it all mental or something more?

In the end, rather Prot is a K-Paxian, or if there’s even a real K-Pax, is unimportant.

Iain Softley (director) / Gene Brewer (novel), Charles Leavitt (screenplay)
CAST: Kevin Spacey …. Prot
Jeff Bridges …. Dr. Mark Powell
Mary McCormack …. Rachel Powell
Alfre Woodard …. Claudia Villars
David Patrick Kelly …. Howie
Saul Williams …. Ernie

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