Depictions of aliens (the extraterrestrial kind, not the asylum seeking kind, although some Conservatives might argue the difference was negligible) on film tend to fall into two distinct categories. The first is that of the evil, predatory alien that takes a delight in death and destruction; this can be seen in such varied works of cinema as Invasion of the Space Vampires, Aliens, Predator or the seminal classic of world cinema that is Herbie Goes Bananas (which is, let’s be clear, about as terrifying a film about hostile aliens as anything starring a foam and latex creation.) The second is the kindly alien that wants to learn from humanity. Although this may sound tooth-rottingly sentimental, films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, ET and Starman have proved to be sensitive and intelligent examinations of otherworldly contact. The star of Starman, Jeff Bridges, coincidentally appears in K-Pax, an intelligent, thought-provoking drama that definitely belongs in the latter category, and manages to be about as ‘realistic’ a film about a space-hopping ‘alien’ as can be imagined.
When Prot (Spacey), a shades-wearing man is found at Grand Central Station at the scene of a mugging, his calm assurance that he comes from the planet K-Pax soon ensures that he is institutionalised in a New York psychiatric hospital, along with a colourful assortment of freaks, lunatics and Jeff Bridges, who plays Dr Mark Powell, a concerned psychiatrist. (Is there any other kind? Why can’t a film feature a blithely unconcerned psychiatrist who sits at his desk swigging gin, spouting hard-edged one liners and quoting Nietzsche at his patients?) It soon becomes clear that Prot (rhymes with ‘boat’) may be two sandwiches short of a buffet, but that he may also be a genuine visitor from another world, albeit possibly one rather closer to home than K-Pax. As the trailer man might say, ‘Powell must race against time to solve the mystery of who Prot is before it is too late’, and the scene is set for a battle of wits.
Of Iain Softley’s previous three films, the Beatles biopic Backbeat and the Henry James adaptation The Wings of the Dove were both intelligent and well made looks at what might have been familiar territory- particularly the latter, which is highly recommended-, (we'll ignore the lacklustre Hackers, which is most notable for introducing Angelina Jolie to the world) and so it comes as no surprise that this continues Softley’s style of literate, thoughtful filmmaking. Visually, the film is a frequent delight, with John (Gladiator) Mathieson’s cinematography adopting odd, skewed ways of shooting scenes that works very well in the context of the picture, with a few scenes even having the coolly detached feel of great European filmmakers like Kubrick or Bergman. Likewise, the film’s ambiguous, playful script has a pleasingly fresh attitude towards the material, even as some horribly obvious plot points are raised (Powell has a troubled family life, which, as any fule kno, Prot will be responsible for ameliorating by the end); the fact that the ending is something of a cop-out comes as a disappointment after the enjoyable nature of much of the build up.
After the disappointments of Pay it Forward and The Shipping News, Spacey returns to the type of character that he has played with great success both in film and on the stage; namely, the cynical, detached outsider who happens to be the most intelligent (and often the wittiest) person on screen. Although his performance occasionally verges on the Oscar-bait, especially in a couple of hypnosis scenes where it’s almost possible to see him Acting, Spacey is superb as Prot, making him likeable, intriguing and wholly sympathetic; it’s also a blessed relief that he played the part rather than Robin Williams or Will Smith, both of whom were thought of as possibilities. Bridges, meanwhile, is his usual dependable self as Powell, even if the sceptre of Jeff Lebowski hangs over his performance (and, to be fair, virtually everything he has done since that film). Unfortunately, the rest of the cast gets less chance to shine, with McCormack and Woodard both stuck in the fairly thankless roles of, respectively, the concerned wife and the by-the-book superior.
This is unlikely to become anyone’s favourite film, or even to linger for an especially long time in one’s memory. However, a good cast, a talented director, an interesting premise with enough twists and turns to sustain a 2-hour film and an ending that, whether it’s viewed as intelligently ambiguous or a lame attempt to tie up plot holes, is at least likely to stimulate debate, add up to an enjoyable experience which is worth watching for something of a change from the usual ‘hostile aliens’ fluff. Incidentally, the film might, perhaps, set some sort of record for most UK distributors; at least 4 logos of production companies appear before the film proper. Perhaps it’s all a conspiracy…
Last updated: 19/04/2018 18:00:54