This article appeared in Issue 24 of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
Since his big break in 1995, in which he garnered a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his unforgettable role in "The Usual Suspects", Kevin Spacey has made a career out of playing smart and well-spoken characters, such as a top cop in "The Negotiator", a cynical suburbanite undergoing a mid-life crisis in "American Beauty", or a disillusioned school teacher in "Pay It Forward". With the opening of "K-Pax" this week, Spacey adds another scene- and line-stealing character to his repertoire, playing a mental patient claiming to be from another planet.
Based on the 1995 Gene Brewer novel of the same name, and eerily similar to the 1986 Argentinean film "Man Facing Southeast (Hombre mirando al sudeste)", "K-Pax" revolves around a gentle yet strange man (Spacey) who shows up in the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan. He calls himself Prot and claims to be from the planet K-Pax, which is 'located 1000 of your light years away in the constellation of Lyra'. Resistant to aggressive psychotherapy and drug treatment, Prot comes to the attention of Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges of "The Contender"), who is determined to uncover the truth behind this enigmatic patient.
However, the further Powell digs, the more evidence he uncovers supporting Prot's assertion-- his vital signs are almost comatose, he can 'see' in the ultraviolet spectrum, and he has intimate knowledge of distant stellar phenomena. The situation is further complicated when Prot announces that he will be returning to his home planet of July 27th, and creates a frenzy among the patients by promising to take one person back with him to K-Pax. With only a few weeks to the 27th, Powell has little time to figure out the significance of that date and avoid the potential consequences of its arrival.
The most obvious interpretation of "K-Pax" would be a Christ allegory, with Prot as a Christ figure who tries to impart wisdom to mankind, yet ends up being misunderstood. Indeed, a number of scenes in the film speak to this, such as the furor Prot causes when he tries to 'heal' his fellow patients, or how he leaves a room of leading astrophysicists flabbergasted by his display of advanced knowledge of stellar mechanics. However, religious leanings aside, "K-Pax" is a heartwarming and optimistic modern-day fable in which a man with no family, no past, and no connection to society becomes the catalyst for another to reconnect and better appreciate the family he has long taken for granted.
As the titular character, Spacey does his usual gravelly-voiced magic, while Bridges is credible as Dr. Powell, who uncovers and weighs the evidence as a stand-in for the audience. Meanwhile, solid supporting performances are delivered by Mary McCormack ("Deep Impact") as Powell's neglected wife, Alfre Woodard ("Star Trek: First Contact") as Powell's skeptical boss, David Patrick Kelly ("Heavy") as an obsessive-compulsive fellow patient, and Peter Gerety ("The Legend of Bagger Vance") as a scene-stealing narcissist who thinks everyone 'stinks'.
So is Prot merely a very convincing delusional, or is he really from another planet? In the end, the film rightfully leaves it up to the audience to decide, providing ample evidence for both possibilities (including an intriguing eleventh-hour discovery that Powell makes on the road). Regardless of what you believe in the end, there is little question that "K-Pax" is one of the more intriguing and intelligent offerings to grace the local theater during this fall moviegoing season.