November 1, 2001

Lost in Space

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Those of us who saw the previews to K-Pax were probably deceived into trusting the voice-overs about this film starring an alien and a psychiatrist. They lead us to expect a movie equal, perhaps, to E.T. in terms of its emotional angst. Well, E.T. this movie is certainly not, yet it does make a graceful attempt at an overall uplifting message.

Starring Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, it tells the story of Prot (Spacey), a patient in a psychiatric ward at which Dr. Mark Powell (Bridges) is the treating physician. Prot, however, is no ordinary patient, believing himself to be an alien from the planet K- Pax — a claim we are inclined to believe because of Spacey’s sometimes incredible performance. Bridges plays the disbelieving Dr. Powell, who despite his growing closeness to the odd Prot, is still wary of believing his extraordinary story.

The growing relationship between the two is as much a focus of the movie as is trying to discover Prot’s hidden emotional trauma, and relievingly so. The scenes of the hypnosis breakthrough in which Bridges tries to regress Prot into the past are so hysterically bad, that it makes you want to smother Prot with a pillow in order to spare Spacey the agony of self- embarassment. Yet the performances of Spacey and Bridges (other than in the above scenes) are understated and sublime, infusing the movie with the brilliant elegance its edgy filmmaking deserves.

The scenes in this film are often terse and pleasantly short, with almost no lengthy monologues that one would expect from any film which has a psychiatrist as a leading role. The dialogue is also often witty, and the humor, wry, as Prot tells the baffled Powell, “Your produce alone has been worth the trip,” as he consumes a banana — peel and all. However, despite the lack of lines, the movie often drags along, especially because of those terrible scenes of hypnotic regression. In other words, most of what is revealed to us as part of Prot’s big mystery could have been effectively accomplished in about 10 minutes.

This movie is a confusing mix of rather brilliant acting and at times strong direction, with clunky, irrelevant and wasteful scenes of trite emotion. Spacey’s Prot is meant to remind us of the simple beauty of life. Sometimes his performance is enough to make us forget all that is expendable in this movie. Yet in scenes of corny togetherness with the martyrish lunatics of the asylum, Spacey comes across as a kind of E.T. to Bridges’ Elliot. This is very noble of him, but what happened to the self-destructive, expressively vivid actor that gave us the crazy Lester Burnham of American Beauty?

Is Prot meant to be a messenger of God, a wounded catatonic, or a lost K- Paxian? The answers are deliberately vague, as is the cinematography. John Mathieson, the cinematographer, gives us the answers through translucent shots of people and lights intercut with subtle painterly images of a mammoth sky scraper. The building somewhat poetically reflects the many ‘scapes of a city where it is easy to lose touch with the unassuming beauty of life.

Unexpectedly, the music is edgy and odd, often providing the relief in the scenes which straggle along as Bridges, ever-pensive, takes his umpteenth nap of the day. Bridges’ character is not quite as complex or interesting as Spacey’s, as he is provoked into doubting all his own self-held beliefs. In a strangely familiar format, Bridges, in trying to help the saintly Prot, forgets about his own life but is reminded of the importance of his family by Prot, who himself is meant to be the healer of all.

The crazy lunatics in this film are meant, ironically enough, to be the beacons of sanity that remind us of the amazing simplicity of life. A consistent directive in this film, it is a message which is well-intentioned and perhaps welcome in times like these. If this reminds anyone though, of something, it would be of the One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tradition of romanticizing the insane as charming quirks and misfits.

K-pax could be labeled a mystical psychological drama on the connection that binds us all, and the inherent beauty of life on earth. Overall, the movie is movingly simple and slow, and has a positive, uplifting message which, though corny, is much welcomed in this time of crisis. The amusing dialogue and interesting ending make this film work, but anyone going in to see this film should not do so with the over-rated adulations of the trailer in mind.

Archived article by Tara Kilachand