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March 2002
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Charles de Lint
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Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
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Jerry Oltion
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by Kathi Maio

Mork Meets The Snake Pit, and Other Familiar Tales

It is no accident, I think, that the term for a "creature from another planet" and the term for a human who originated from across some artificial boundary line on our very own Earth is the same: Alien.

It all comes down to our perception of another being as foreign—substantially different from ourselves.

As to whether difference is a good thing or a threat has always depended on who you talk to, and the prevailing winds of the public sentiment of the day. In human relations, "multiculturalism" and "tolerance" are two words bandied about widely these days. Lessons on acceptance and inclusion are regularly featured in television programming, and daily taught in school. Yet hate groups have never been more widespread or virulent. And as for the prevailing winds, since September of 2001 they have carried, in the U.S., the smoldering scent of death and destruction, and the possibility of invisible contagion.

One can't help but wonder what this will all mean for Hollywood film.

For creatures from other worlds have always had, in American movies, allegorical power to reflect our Earthly social attitudes. Their depiction is usually less than subtle, and full of Christian imagery. Some are demonic. Others messianic. During the dawn of the Cold War, in the shadow of the HUAC witch hunts, scary creature features expressed our paranoia—not always overtly expressed amidst the strident optimism of the fifties—about political threats and atomic horrors. Still, in this same environment, one of my favorite alien flicks, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), was released. Here the alien is a savior in a shiny jumpsuit. Of course, Michael Rennie, with his lean, debonair looks and his tasteful British accent, was just the kind of inter-galactic peace envoy to inspire confidence. Too bad the intolerant, militaristic humanoids still wanted to do him in.

In another post-war era, after Vietnam, social attitudes were even more confused—all that leftover peace and love from the sixties, mixed with the startling realization that not everyone in the world loved the good ole US of A. (The 1979-80 Iranian hostage "crisis" did great psychic damage specifically because we could no longer deny that some of our global brethren saw us as heathens and devils.) Therefore, cinematic space visitors vacillated wildly between the touchie-feelie aliens of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters (1977) and E.T. (1982) and the literal "enemy from within" phobic gross-outs of the Alien (1979+) franchise.

It's been a mixed bag for years—sometimes within the same movie. In the mishmash that was Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars (2000) horrific violence and dread inexplicably transform into a "We are Family" lovefest at the film's conclusion. Go figure. If you can.

I can hardly wait to see what will happen in the next few years of Hollywood SF film. If I were a betting woman, I would wager that—after the dust settles—for every angelic, paternalistic alien (e.g., Contact, 1997) Hollywood offers us, we'll be forced to watch three evil alien empires (e.g., ID4, 1996) that will be gloriously defeated by a whole lotta red white and blue whoop-ass.

While we wait, we can enjoy, in a modest way, an example of the warm and fuzzy school (so soothing in these troubled times) that elevates itself well above the mediocre quality of its story through excellent performances and solid direction.

The film is K-PAX. It is directed by Iain Softley (Hackers, Wings of the Dove), and written by Charles Leavitt (The Mighty), based—fairly closely—on the 1995 first novel of the same name by Gene Brewer.

I always think that it's a very bad sign when an entertainment can be easily summed up by one of those dreaded "meets" similes. Yet K-PAX, the book and the movie, has repeatedly been described in this way by both professional critics and the general public. It's Starman Meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Cocoon Meets 12 Monkeys, My Favorite Martian Meets Awakenings. Take your pick.

But more than anything else K-PAX is suspiciously like an Argentinean film from 1986 called Man Facing Southeast. That movie, written and directed by Eliseo Subiela, tells the story of a compassionate and observant creature, here called Rantes (Hugo Soto), who claims to be a visitor from another world. Brought to the attention of an overworked and burnt-out psychiatrist with a troubled family life, Rantes is tested and studied, and assumed to be brilliant but delusional. However, certain events seem to indicate that the patient is telling the truth. Rantes appears to be, at the very least, a benign figure who not only comforts the other asylum inmates but also prods the doctor to think about his attitudes and values.

Man Facing Southeast isn't exactly feel-good fluff. As a relatively early post-junta film, it paints a rather bleak view of human (in this case, Argentine) society. Christ-like Rantes is moved to feed the hungry and comfort the oppressed. And he can't understand why his shrink, Dr. Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros), isn't similarly moved to act. Instead, calling himself a "Pilate of the Galaxies," the Doctor, fearing for his job, sides with hospital authorities and allows Rantes to be brutalized by mind-killing drugs and tortured with shock treatments. The savior figure is crucified by social control and silence. At times slow, and—for many—overly religious in tone, Man Facing Southeast is nonetheless a moving and thought-provoking science fiction film.

If you peeled away a bit of the Christian symbolism, added an extra psychological twist, and gave it a much more upbeat tone (better suited to [North] American cultural tastes, or lack thereof) you would have K-PAX.

I'd like to claim all this as an expose scoop. But movie buffs have seen the similarity between the two works since the day Mr. Brewer's novel was published. (See, for example, the Kirkus review of January 1, 1995). And when the movie trailer for K-PAX hit theaters, a few months before its release, even more folks wondered about this U.S. "remake" of a South American cult film. I wanted to test my own recollections, so I hunted down a rental copy of Mr. Subiela's film. And when I showed up at my area's best-stocked video store to pick it up, the clerk said "You're watching this because of that K-PAX remake, right?" And that was before the Universal release even hit theaters!

"Remake" implies an acknowledged source material, of course. But if there was any nod given to Man Facing Southeast by either the novel or the movie of K-PAX, I sure did miss it, even though I studied the credits and production notes quite carefully. Perhaps the paranoia of the times is getting to me. I'm becoming a conspiracy theorist in my old age. Then again, maybe it's all a coincidence. There are a limited number of plots in this world, after all. And in a day where Hollywood goes out of its way to find a high (that is, derivative) concept for every movie it makes, and many novelists do the same, it was only a matter of time before Mork & Mindy met The Snake Pit, I suppose.

For the above reason, I must admit that I was predisposed to dislike K-PAX. I had prejudged it to be unoriginal—or worse. Still, the only fair thing to do is to judge a movie on its own merits or shortcomings. So, let me take a moment here to damn the film with faint praise. As a cinematic fable, it actually works.

Iain Softley's direction keeps the pace of the story up, while not resorting to inappropriate use of special effects, and seldom pandering to the sentimental aspects of the plot. Mr. Leavitt's lean and effective screenplay makes one crucial and important change from the book. The psychiatrist hero is no longer named (like the book's author) Gene Brewer. He is now named Dr. Mark Powell and is a more complex character, although still in keeping with the stereotype of the workaholic yuppie who needs to adjust his priorities.

The fact that the character of Dr. Powell doesn't strike the viewer as a stock character has less to do with writing than it does on the skill of the actor in the role. Jeff Bridges is one of Hollywood's most under-appreciated actors. (I know awards are bull doody, but, galdarnit, this guy has never won an Oscar!) The reasons, I think, are his bland good looks and his incredible talent for making every character seem so natural that he must just be playing himself. Take a look at the range, though. From The Last Picture Show to American Heart to The Big Lebowski to his terrific turn as the President in 2000's The Contender, Jeff Bridges is a first-rate film actor.

Kevin Spacey, who plays the "alien," prot, is no slouch either (and has two Academy Awards to prove it). But, you know, Spacey, although gifted, has a tendency to let his Ac-Ting show. And his knowing smirk has been known to get on my nerves. Luckily, a knowing smirk is completely appropriate for his current role as a gentle fellow who claims to be from a superior civilization on a Utopian planet, several thousand light years from Earth.

Prot says that he is just visiting. And although he has the ability to transport himself at tachyon speeds any time he wants, he somehow seems content to be locked up in the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan, under the care of a dedicated (but family-neglecting) doctor, during his current visit to our planet.

While institutionalized, prot has an almost miraculous effect on the other sad souls on his ward. One by one, the patients seem to blossom and heal, not from Dr. Powell's treatment, but rather from prot's presence in their lives. The film makes good use of a score of skilled character actors in the roles of patients and staff. All the parts are woefully underwritten, of course. But these characters are less people than elaborate set decoration to allow the growing relationship between the Doctor and his alien patient to shine.

The wasting of good acting chops is standard operating procedure in Hollywood. So, normally I am philosophical about it. In K-PAX, it works against the film in some instances, as when prot picks the most undeveloped of the patient characters to supposedly take back with him to K-PAX—leaving the viewer to wonder why. I also found myself asking why-why-why regarding the criminal neglect of one of the film's so-called "stars," Alfre Woodard. That wonderful actor is given third billing in the credits, yet is relegated to a glorified walk-on in the final cut of the movie. (Tell me that Alfre isn't destined to waste herself in those countless, and utterly thankless, administrator and judge roles that Hollywood doles out to meet minority quotas. . . . Please.)

Still, this film sinks or swims on the ability of the two male leads to relate in interesting ways with one another. And it's the talents of Bridges and Spacey that make this story work, despite an imitative plot full of otherwise half-realized characters. The movie always keeps our interest because of the interplay between Powell and prot, as the Doctor alternates between belief in alien visitation, and his professional hunch that prot is simply a human repressing a past trauma.

Generally speaking, K-PAX actually works better as a film than as a novel. And it's not often you can say that! Still, it's interesting to note precisely what's been jettisoned from the book. Prot's politics have largely been expunged. Movie viewers hear little of his gentle anarchism, full of a profound dislike of religion and all social controls. And they hear even less about his passionate vegetarianism (mirrored by fervent views of one of the Doctor's children, a human animal activist). In the film, prot's preference for fruit is simply labeled a "healthy" lifestyle choice at a family picnic he attends.

That's one of the many ways K-PAX (the movie) plays it safe and predictable. And that's why, despite the outstanding work of two of Hollywood's finest, I can't necessarily recommend the film . . .although I would certainly never try to dissuade anyone from seeing it.

Except, perhaps, Eliseo Subiela of Argentina, a filmmaker who isn't afraid serious issues and thoroughly downbeat endings. Mr. Subiela should probably avoid this film, so like his own. That is, unless he wants to bring his lawyer along.

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