K-PAX (2001)

2001, Universal. Directed by Iain Softley. Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Mary McCormack, Alfre Woodard.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?D
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? -3
Age
Appropriateness
?Teens & Up*

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG-13 USCCB ?A-II

Content advisory: Fleeting violence and disturbing images seen in flashback; some coarse language; anti-establishment claptrap.

By Steven D. Greydanus

"He’s the most convincing delusional I’ve ever seen," says Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges). The "delusional" is Prot (Kevin Spacey), a matter-of-factly low-key patient at the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan, who claims to be an alien from the planet K-PAX ("Capital K, hyphen, capitals P-A-X").

Convincing he certainly is, in some settings. Prot dumbfounds a planetarium full of astrophysicists with detailed information about the orbit of his home planet dovetailing perfectly with recently observed irregularities in the movements of the star system he claims as his home. At a 4th of July picnic he amazes children with information ostensibly interpreted from the barkings of the family dog ("He says he doesn’t like it when you hide his favorite tennis shoe… and he doesn’t hear so well in the left ear, so please don’t sneak up on him any more"). And, after informing his doctor that he’ll be temporarily beaming out of the psychiatric institute to do some globe-hopping, Prot indeed vanishes without a trace, only to return just as mysteriously some time later.

Prot pulls off these party tricks quite convincingly. Yet get him started on his theories about mankind, family, society, and the like, and the spell is broken: He’s clearly delusional. Not that I’m saying anything about the truth or falsehood of his claims. Prot may very well be an alien. That doesn’t mean he isn’t delusional.

"You humans," Prot says with good-naturedly condescending smugness. "Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how you’ve made it this far." With his unflappably low-key matter-of-factness, his vegetarian diet, and his unconcern for conventions like peeling bananas before eating them, Prot certainly seems the very picture of pop-psych enlightenment — an Ubermensch straight out of the pages of Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones. Listening to Prot’s claims, viewers may even be reminded of the claims of another man who said he came down from heaven. (K-PAX doesn’t get into the Christological implications, though it otherwise greatly resembles a 1986 Argentinean film, Man Facing Southeast, that does.)

So, would you like to hear some of Prot’s cosmic wisdom? Are you ready for a revelatory new look at life on earth, with all its foibles and eccentricities, from the perspective of an enlightened visitor from the stars?

Brace yourself: On K-PAX, there’s no marriage or family! "No marriage, no wives, no husbands, no families," Prot helpfully clarifies for the benefit of Dr. Powell, who’s slow to grasp this difficult concept. "Family would be a non sequitur on K-PAX — as on most planets." Children aren’t raised by their biological parents; instead, they "circulate" (like cocktail-party guests, I suppose). Yes, on K-PAX it takes a planet to raise a child.

Would you be amazed to learn that on K-PAX there is also no government and no law? "No law?" queries Dr. Powell. "No law, no lawyers," Prot points out, as if that says it all. But how do you know right from wrong? Dr. Powell wants to know. "Every being in the universe knows right from wrong," Prot replies.

Well, all right. Maybe where Prot comes from they don’t need to worry about evil; maybe K-PAX is an unfallen paradise. But Dr. Powell persists: Suppose someone did do something really wrong, hurt or raped someone? To this Prot says: "You humans, most of you, believe in ‘an eye for an eye’ — a principle known throughout the universe for its stupidity. Even your Buddha and your Christ had a different vision, but no one seems to have paid much attention, not even the Buddhists or the Christians."

Is that even meant to be an answer to the question? What specifically is the wiser alternative embraced throughout the universe concerning those who do really wrong things? Even if that never happens on K-PAX — even if we on this poor fallen planet are alone in the universe in hurting one another — how would the universe advise us, on this planet, to respond to great wrongs? By abolishing government and law? By standing around being all enlightened while people hurt one another? Is that what Buddha and Christ tried to teach us?

Much later in the film we learn that Prot has an ambiguous relationship to another character who actually was victimized by the sort of evil Dr. Powell speaks of, and who responded with murderous eye-for-an-eye vengeance. This revelation may give Prot’s words new resonance, but nothing he says illuminates what that man ought to have done instead.

Or consider the oceans of wisdom in Prot’s closing voice-over, which goes something like this: "The universe is expanding, but after that it will collapse back in on itself, and go on expanding and collapsing into eternity. What you don’t know is that everything that happens in this iteration is repeated in all future iterations. Everything you do, you will do again and again forever. Every mistake you make, you will relive again and again for all eternity. So try to get it right this time, because this is the only chance you have."

This charming speech, apparently meant to be inspirational and motivational, in fact comes across as reincarnation theory from hell with a Calvinist double-predestination twist. Besides, why does Prot seem to think that this particular iteration offers us any opportunity to get it right? Shouldn’t he rather conclude that we’re already merely reliving the mistakes we’ve been making for eternity in previous universal iterations? Isn’t the idea of the big-bang-big-crunch theory that the universe has always been doing this? Surely Prot doesn’t think the universe just got started this time around, does he?

Prot’s thoughts about mental illness are as delusional as his theories on government and family. "For your information," he tells Dr. Powell, "all beings have the capacity to cure themselves. On K-PAX we’ve known this for thousands of years." However, because this is Prot’s movie, he gets to be in a psychiatric ward filled with charmingly eccentric patients of the sort who successfully resist years of therapy but eagerly respond to a few shrewd suggestions or an unconventional treatment from a fellow patient.

For example, K-PAX suggests that a person suffering from pathological obssessive-compulsive fear of germs and infection could easily "get over it" if a near-death experience were to help him realize the pointlessness of living in fear of death. This is the most shameless psychological quackery to come out of Hollywood since Mumford.

In American Beauty Kevin Spacey told us, with all the authority of one who has transcended this mortal coil, what a wonderful world it could be if only we could all see the beauty in a plastic bag blowing in the wind. Now here he is as a holy alien with a gospel of living in the moment and believing in yourself. Give me a break. I’ll take the Pax Christi over K-PAX any day.

Tags: Comedy, Drama, Science Fiction

Related Content

Review: Mumford (1999)

D | **½ | +1-3| Adults*

It’s not hard to play connect-the-dots and pair off likable characters with one another. It’s harder to put them in a story that’s worthwhile. This is a film without conviction, about a town full of people with problems without depth, aided by a guru without soul. Mumford is a fraud. Take that in whatever sense you like.

Continue reading this review >

Coming Soon

Recently Added

In Theaters – Latest

In Theaters – All