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K-PAX

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Mary McCormack, Alfre Woodard
Director:  Iain Softley
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  121 Minutes
Release Date:  March 26, 2002

Film ***1/2

For me, the real attraction of K-PAX isn’t the story, even though it’s a sweet and involving one.  The main pleasure is getting to watch two of our best film actors in top form working together and bringing out the best in one another.

Those actors are, of course, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, and their characters’ relationship makes up the heart of K-PAX, which, like Bridges’ own successful Starman, is a very human tale about an extra-terrestrial visitor.

Or is he?  When Prot (Spacey) first appears on the scene in a New York train station, his quiet speech about his travels leads him straight to a psychiatric hospital.  There, he will meet Dr. Mark Powell (Bridges), a good doctor with some family problems, who tries to get to the bottom of who and what Prot really is.

There can only be two possibilities, and reason would tend to favor that Prot is delusional.  To accept the alternative would be a bit mind-blowing.  Prot wins both Powell and the audience over, however, with his gentle mannerisms and his meticulous detail about his home planet of K-PAX, light speed travel theories, and general observations about humanity, which seem both accurate and poignant.

It certainly seems either way that Prot is no threat to anybody…but his presence begins to have an unusual effect on the other patients in the ward.  Prot has indicated July 27 as the date for his return home, and he will be allowed to take one human being back with him.  That possibility, along with Prot’s belief that all creatures have it within them to cure themselves (a fact we humans have not yet discovered, he points out), brings a new spirit to his fellow patients.  We see vibrant improvement right before our eyes!

Powell, however, seems to be treading a fine line between his duty as a doctor, which would be to cure Prot’s delusions, and the fact that at times, he seems to be believing himself.  Prot even astounds a group of top astronomers with his mathematical calculations and orbital projections showing the location of his home planet.

But something about Prot’s date and time for return bothers Powell.  Finally, using hypnosis, he begins trying to piece together Prot’s past…could the upcoming date actually mark the anniversary of something traumatic?

Kevin Spacey’s performance is so sincere from start to finish, we as the audience have to continually remind ourselves that Prot could be just a mentally ill human being.  Like another of his memorable characters, Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, his sincerity goes a long way in selling us on the dramatic arc of the story.  In a superbly constructed climax, we wait on the edge of our seat for the final answer as to who Prot is.

And Jeff Bridges, who once played the Starman, is in fine form playing the “straight man” opposite Spacey.  His Dr. Powell is more than an aid to the plot…his involvement with Prot closely mirrors our own.  As an actor, he’s never afraid to offer us subtle clues that he may in fact be beginning to believe Prot, and what that possibility could mean.

Both actors together elevate a good script to an even higher level, and probably made director Iain Softley’s job a lot easier.  With confidence in his stars, Softley brings the film to live in a visually succinct way, using effects to heighten and accent his key sequences.  The movie has a great sense of pacing and rhythm for its two hours…it never seems to miss a beat.

K-PAX joins the rank of such films as Close Encounters, E. T., and the aforementioned Starman as works that consider the possibility that we are not alone with optimism.  Would the presence of benign, intelligent beings outside of earth really mean that humanity has a chance to overcome its frailties and become something bigger and better?  Maybe, maybe not.  But for the length of a two hour film, it’s certainly nice to think so.

Video ****

This is a stellar effort from Universal…a bright, colorful offering with lots of minute detail and a great spectral range, all of which translates flawlessly onto disc.  Images are sharply defined throughout, and colors look vivid and natural in every kind of light setting imaginable…when Dr. Powell dims the lights in his office, for example, it gives the schematics a whole new photographic vocabulary.  The planetarium sequence, which is much darker, is a good study in light/dark contrasts and how well they can render on DVD.  Reference quality all the way!

Audio ***1/2

This is a full, dynamic 5.1 audio offering (choice of Dolby Digital or DTS tracks).  Despite the dialogue being the main attraction, there are a number of sequences that allow both stages to open up fully, such as the planetarium one, or a couple of strong flashback sequences…even the opening at the train station.  The subwoofer use is generally subtle but potent, accenting certain scenes with extra bottom end.  The spoken words and the music are clear and well rendered throughout…a commendable effort.

Features ****

Universal Collector’s Edition discs usually mean the extras are plentiful; K-PAX is no exception.  The commentary by director Iain Softley is a good listen, as he talks about the cast, the filming, and his ideas on shaping the story.  There is also an alternate 4 minute ending…interesting, because the differences between the two are more subtle than grand (unlike, say, Joy Ride).  There is a production featurette containing interview footage with Spacey, Bridges, Softley, and other crew members (poor Kevin really did eat that banana), some deleted scenes, a trailer, production notes, talent files, some DVD ROM extras, and a nice finishing touch:  a gallery of Jeff Bridges’ own photographs from the production.

Summary:

K-PAX is an engrossing and entertaining film with a sweet nature and a winning sense of optimism anchored by two terrific actors doing what they do best.  The quality of both the film and this Collector’s Edition disc from Universal make this one a worthwhile addition to any fan’s library.  Recommended.