In 1984, Jeff Bridges portrayed a genial visitor from another world in Starman. Seventeen years later, it seems the interplanetary tables may be turned. In K-PAX, Bridges plays a Manhattan-based psychiatrist who comes face-to-face with Prot, a nice guy who looks and sounds human, but claims to be vacationing from a home 1,000 light-years away. Is Prot for real? Does he actually shuttle back and forth across the galaxy on rays of light? Or is he a convincing delusional who just happens to possess a superhuman knowledge of astronomy, as well as the ability to see ultraviolet light and remain unaffected by certain drugs? (Don’t worry, I won’t tell.) As scientists and psychiatrists ponder the evidence, Prot quietly has a miraculously positive impact on the mental hospital’s other residents. Whereas the doctors offer them drugs, Prot offers them hope. In fact, he says he’ll take one person with him when he returns to K-PAX on July 27 at 5:51 a.m. eastern time, causing quite a stir among his fellow patients. Meanwhile, the closer Dr. Mark Powell gets to Prot, the more he genuinely wants to help him, solve this mystery and—if his hunch is correct—rescue his new patient from a deeply hidden secret. But he has to do it before time runs out.
positive elements: As Dr. Powell’s colleagues, who’ve just been introduced to Prot’s case, jump to cynical diagnoses and propose using experimental drugs on him, Powell rises to his defense, suggesting, "How about getting to know him first?" Prot is kind, optimistic, accommodating and interested in the lives of others—a contrast to the professional, clinical interest the doctors seem to take in their patients. Workaholism is shown as destructive to family relationships. Rachel Powell has a firm grip on her clan’s emotional needs, and lovingly encourages Mark to reconsider his priorities. Prot does the same. When Dr. Powell asks if he might someday see K-PAX, Prot responds, "You should see more of your world. In fact, you should see more of your own family." It sparks a reunion between the psychiatrist and his college-age son (the two haven’t spoken in some time). There’s a lot here about not taking one’s family for granted. On K-PAX, the society at large raises children rather than the mother and father, making the traditional nuclear family a nonentity there. So when Prot visits the Powell home and discusses "biological connections" with Rachel, she tells him, "You don’t know what you’re missing." A pathophobic (deathly afraid of harmful bacteria) freed from his psychosis concludes, "Dying is something you have no control over. Why waste your life being afraid of it?" It’s implied that sensitivity and hope can do more to cure mental illness than prodding and pills—a subtle, yet powerful illustration of why Christians holding the keys of life must share them with people who need Jesus.
spiritual content: Prot indicates that Jesus and Buddha might have been onto something by expressing pacifist views. When a mental patient hoping to accompany Prot to his home planet asks if he can take his Bible to K-PAX, the answer is, "of course." There’s also evidence that Prot spent time at a Salvation Army shelter before arriving in New York. Such indications that he is familiar with and sympathetic to Christianity are great if Prot is indeed an alien gathering philosophical truth, but if he’s really mentally ill, they could suggest that he’s a sick man who found little help from those ideologies. Dr. Powell’s big breakthrough with Prot comes as a result of hypnotizing him, a spiritually dubious practice treated here as a viable tool for diagnosing a person’s state of mind. While praising Christ’s take on nonviolence (recommended in Matthew 5:35-42), Prot says that the "eye for an eye" idea is "stupidity" (a bit harsh considering God divinely gave that law to Moses for a reason in Exodus 21:23-25). Near the end of the film, a line seems to promote the concepts of karma and reincarnation until a follow-up line all but contradicts it.
sexual content: Prot explains to Dr. Powell why K-PAXian reproduction isn’t nearly as pleasurable as it is on earth. There���s a reference to a violent rape.
violent content: A woman is mugged in a train station. There’s talk of one mental patient trying to strangle another. While under hypnosis, Prot lunges for Dr. Powell’s throat. Prot talks about the way cows are slaughtered. The film’s most disturbing scene, while not unduly graphic, flashes back to (and describes) the brutal rape and double-murder of a man’s wife and young daughter.
crude or profane language: There are just over two dozen profanities, including five s-words and one f-word (if you don’t count a rapid series of six or seven incidental uses of "bulls---" by a yammering mental patient).
drug and alcohol content: On several occasions, psychiatrists prescribe drugs as a knee-jerk response for stabilizing the mentally ill. Powell’s wife asks him to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner. Beer and wine are consumed at a backyard barbecue. As they say goodbye, Prot and Dr. Powell drink Scotch.
other negative elements: When Dr. Powell asks Prot how people on his planet distinguish between right and wrong, he naively replies, "Every being in the universe knows right from wrong" without implying that there’s any universal moral standard or consequences for violating it. He also suggests that individuals are entirely self-aware and self-sufficient with the comment, "All beings have the capacity to heal themselves."
conclusion: Any movie with a "hug your kids" homily that tells viewers not to take their families for granted deserves a round of applause. At first, we’re left to wonder if Prot’s description of socialist child-rearing on K-PAX ("It Takes a Village ..." sans parents) is going to be positioned as a preferable model. Fortunately, it isn’t. Quite the contrary. Dr. Powell learns a valuable lesson about the fragile glass menagerie that is the home, and takes steps to make every moment count. But aside from that message, prolonged reflection on K-PAX will likely yield sadness and frustration. Sadness because the film ends on a decidedly bittersweet note (more bitter than sweet). Frustration because, once fully clued in on Prot’s background, certain moments from throughout the story defy logic and seem like nothing more than red herrings inserted to keep the audience in "is he or isn’t he?" mode.
Kevin Spacey reminds us why he’s one of the finest actors of his generation. His performance is worth the price of admission. That and the film’s pro-family sentiment are the best things about K-PAX, which is a thoughtful piece of entertainment. But it’s one that (as Steven Spielberg’s A.I. learned earlier this year) may stumble at the box office for failure to leave people seeking an escapist sci-fi fairy tale truly uplifted. It’s a dim rainbow without the hoped-for pot of gold. Beyond the movie’s moving, yet disappointing conclusion, many families will object to moments of implied brutality, harsh language and the treatment of hypnosis as a handy crowbar for prying into the human mind. K-PAX isn’t a bad film, but it certainly doesn’t live up to the potential of its premise.