Monday, July 17, 2017

K-PAX (2001)

Some plot devices have been used so much that there’s really nowhere new to go with them.  Ambiguity, for instance, can only take you so far.  If you’re using that as the focus of your story, you had better be able to do it well.  K-PAX relies on a fair amount of ambiguity.

A man appears in a train station.  He’s taken to a psychiatric hospital, mostly because he’s a little off.  When I say a little off, I mean he claims to be an alien named Prot from the planet K-PAX.  Dr. Powell is the one who catches his case.   The only thing that’s unusual is that Prot can see ultraviolet.  Other than that, he’s an ordinary guy that was walking around without any ID who happens to claim to be an alien.  Dr. Powell sets out to figure out what Prot’s major malfunction is.

Prot’s story is pretty well developed.  He’s able to describe aspects of K-PAXian society, like children being raised by the community.  When presented to a group of astronomers, Prot is able to describe his solar system in great detail.  It would be a pretty lame trick except that it explains the wobble that had been observed in the system’s binary stars.  (The movie was released in 2001, when wobble was how we inferred planets around other stars.)

So, we have ambiguity.  Prot can’t really prove that he’s an alien, since he rode in on a beam of light.  It makes sense that an alien civilization would come up with some strange method of interstellar travel, but it’s convenient that it’s one that doesn’t give Prot a spaceship to show off or get back to.  On the other hand, he’s in human form.  There’s no test that any doctor could run that would prove or disprove the claim.  His ability to see UV rays could be nothing more than a random genetic mutation.

Prot can’t be an alien because its absurd.  Except that he seems to know stuff that makes his claim somewhat convincing.  Except that, when put under hypnosis, he has memories from before his arrival on Earth.  The memories are presented as those of a friend, which we take in the context of, “I have this friend who has an embarrassing question.”  So, is Prot really an alien or is he a person repressing some bad memory?  We have Prot’s impending departure to look forward to for answers.

As the saying goes, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.  As much as Prot’s story is self-reinforcing, we can’t take that as proof that he isn’t what he says he is.  When Prot disappears for a few days, it’s possible that he really did go off to Iceland and Greenland.  It’s also possible that he was hiding in a ventilation duct the whole time.  There’s no way to be certain of either, short of finding footage of Prot at a 7-Eleven in Reykjavik.

It is an interesting story.  I wish it went into more detail.  The movie seems to want to walk the fine line between Prot being an alien visitor and a crazy human.  It is based on the first book in a series.  It would be interesting to get ahold of them just to see how the source material handles Prot’s claim.

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