"Prot" is a patient at a mental hospital who claims to have arrived on Earth on "a beam of light" from the planet K-PAX. His doctor, his fellow patients, and movie audiences aren't so sure.

Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges star in this "modern fable," only this time, Bridges is the skeptical doctor, not the Starman. Spacey plays this prophetic stranger as a light-sensitive wise man prone to gobbling up Earth's fruit—strawberries, apples, bananas—peel, seeds, and all. It's a simple story. Dr. Mark Powell and his colleagues grow frustrated as Prot starts effectively ministering to the needs of his fellow patients, encouraging them with platitudes and positive thinking. They are drawn to him, clinging to his whispered wisdom. The more Powell investigates Prot's origins, the more suspicious he becomes that Prot just might be what he claims to be. But Powell's work is keeping him from attending to his frustrated family. So can you guess who else Prot plans to heal?

This is quite a departure for director Iain Softley (The Wings of the Dove). He keeps the camera close to Spacey's knowing smirk and Bridges' furrowed brow. Cinematographer John Mathieson (Gladiator) puts on a splashy light show—sunlight pours through windows, reflects off glass skyscrapers, refracts through prisms, and falls from the sky like a hard rain of honey.

A few Christian-media critics saw the light of Christ reflected in Prot's behavior.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) highlights Prot's "genuine interest in the people he met and the moment he was in." He calls K-PAX "an allegorical tale of deliverance and salvation."

Mary Draughon (Preview) also thinks Prot has messianic merit: "Prot seems to understand the loneliness and fears of his fellow patients and helps draw them out of their mental isolation."

Holly McClure (The Orange County Register) calls K-PAX an "intelligent, heartwarming, well-written story with a tender message about how precious the gifts of life and love can (and should) be."

Jerry Langford (Movieguide) says the movie "promotes the values of hope, healing and redemption more than scientific cures, reconciliation more than pride, and family more than the fast-paced careers we pursue. It's a down-to-earth message for a society intent on moving at light-speed."

Others, however, found flaws in the film's philosophy.

"Powell learns a valuable lesson about the fragile glass menagerie that is the home, and takes steps to make every moment count," argues Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family). "But aside from that message, prolonged reflection on K-PAX will likely yield sadness and frustration. Sadness because the film ends on a decidedly bittersweet note (more bitter than sweet)."

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Similarly, the U.S. Catholic Conference's critic calls it a "disappointing drama" that "presents some intriguing questions about the human capacity for healing, but is ultimately unsatisfying in its abrupt switch of gears from lighthearted to grave."

This "bitter" end entails two things: a sobering crisis at the film's conclusion, and a last-minute voice-over sermon that warns us we will be burdened with our mistakes forever. Prot warns humankind that the universe is constantly expanding and collapsing, with the same results each time; thus, we are cursed to living the same lives. So, he says, we should try to get it right. The music swells, but unlike some of my fellow viewers I was not moved to happy tears. (My review is at Looking Closer.) Isn't Prot's warning like a threat of judgment, something to frighten us into living well? I prefer a messiah who inspires with a promise of forgiveness and grace, who points to an end to sadness. Spacey has ended two movies now with a dissatisfying monologue on the meaning of life. (Remember American Beauty?) So far, he's 0-2.

Mainstream critics were divided over the film. Some like the performances, but many found it to be a predictable package overstuffed with style and sentiment.

Michael Wilmington (Chicago Tribune) isn't convinced: "All Prot's fellow inmates seem to have dropped down from some other world—the planet of movie insane-asylum clichés." He finds the film inferior to those that inspired it—One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, King of Hearts, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Brother From Another Planet, Starman, and Man Facing Southeast.

The Flick Filosopher says that Oscar-winner Spacey is following Robin Williams' example, getting lazy, hamming it up, and appearing wise by stating obvious truths "like the sun is bright and strawberries are good." Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum agrees: "First with Pay It Forward and now with K-PAX, [Spacey] has chosen to squish his big, complex talent into safe-movie containers—into characters who are walking moral lessons, not just men."

A Catalogue of Christlike Characters

Fortunately, there are dozens of better big-screen fables that echo the Old, Old Story. With a quick trip to the video store, you could put together your own movie-messiahs film festival.

Man Facing Southeastis, perhaps, the best alternative to K-PAX. While the folks who made the Spacey/Bridges film claim never to have seen this art-house hit from Argentina, the similarities are uncanny. Southeast tells the story of a mental-hospital patient (far less smug and sardonic than Prot) who ministers to his fellow patients and doctors and stirs up curiosity about his origins. Once a day he stands in the courtyard facing southeast intently, as though receiving some kind of transmission. It's a simple, charming tale that avoids K-PAX's easy answers and dire sermons.

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Some messiahs have reached the mainstream. The Matrix's Neo (Keanu Reeves) is trained to enter a world of manufactured lies and deliver a persecuted people. He exhibits miraculous powers (even resurrection) and points the way to Zion's refuge. Neo means well, but some viewers question the saintliness of gunning down innocents in the name of the cause. Isn't this holy-war terrorism?

Popular characters like Superman, The Iron Giant, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and Edward Scissorhands all "come down" from a higher place and cause a social and spiritual stir. Ben Kenobi of Star Wars becomes an inspirational martyr. Jack upsets social structures and gives his life for Rose in Titanic. An astronaut sacrifices himself to save the world in Armageddon. In The Bridge on the River Kwai, a British military leader is punished for defending civility and human rights; later his compassion for his enemy goes almost too far. And in Platoon, a U.S. soldier—we first see him shouldering a rifle like a cross—puts his life on the line defending the rights of the Vietnamese. An actor takes on the role of Jesus for a Passion play in Jesus of Montreal and finds himself becoming like the character. One of my favorites is a woman who uses her fortune to provide a meal for a divided community in Babette's Feast.

In a discussion on his Web site, Steve Lansingh (The Film Forum) admires Andy Dufresne of The Shawshank Redemption: "Andy never forgets that he belongs in a world outside the prison walls. He is a peacemaker, a servant to those around him, even his enemies. Andy's outstretched arms at his moment of triumph are reminiscent of the cross." Lansingh was also moved by Richard Gere in Sommersby: "The choice the main character has to make is exactly like that of Jesus: Do I cling to my own life and my own desires or can I sacrifice them for the salvation of many?"

Lansingh's colleague Rich Kennedy responds: "C. C. Baxter has a very Christlike moment at the end of The Apartment. Baxter … takes on the sins of all the randy executives abusing his good nature, particularly in the eyes of his neighbors."

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On the same message board, critic Doug Cummings (Chiaroscuro) recommends we revisit Babe: Pig in the City and pay heed to an unlikely redeemer: "Building community by accepting the outcasts, [Babe is] 'a pig on a mission.' He saves the life of one who hates him, and establishes a 'new' kingdom on earth." Cummings also notes a host of other cinema saints, including the heroine of Dancer in the Dark, the criminal in Whistle Down the Wind, and even a donkey in Bresson's Au hazard, Balthazar who "suffers at the hands of humanity and becomes the brunt of all of their pain." He also remembers Richard Attenborough's Gandhi—"He was openly inspired by the Bible and Christ's teachings in particular. So while we tend to think of 'Christ figures' metaphorically, there is much to be said for real people who follow in Jesus' footsteps."

"One sci-fi messiah figure I always loved was Flynn, the Jeff Bridges character in Tron," says Peter T. Chattaway (Books & Culture, The Vancouver Courier). "Once you get past the fact that he was tricked into becoming part of the universe he had created, there are some amazing parallels between that film and the Christian narrative. Flynn, because he is one of the creators of the cyber-universe, has miraculous powers that none of the programs have, even though he seems to have 'emptied' himself and become a mere program himself." He also suggests that, in the Terminator films, John Connor's initials might hold a clue.

While none of these redeemers manifest the fullness of Christ's incarnation, they serve to remind us that all "little Christs" are strangers in a strange land, called to be "in but not of the world." Viewers tend to identify with these sympathetic heroes who walk lonely roads, persecuted, misunderstood, yearning for home. I find, however, that I am often uncomfortable with how often I see myself in the self-preservation, fear, and judgmentalism of those who deny or betray the heroes.

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Alternative Fare

Viewers seem much more enthusiastic about the spiritual inquiry that takes place in Waking Life. The movie was shot using digital video, then transformed with a revolutionary animation technique with which artists actually "painted over" the footage to create a surreal yet lifelike cartoon. The central character is Wiley Wiggins, who dreams his way through fantastical conversations and debates about spirituality, society, love, life, and the future. Abandoning conventional plots (as he usually does), director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Before Sunrise) fills this film with lifelike conversations between young people. These colorful chats aim to send you home with new questions and a fresh perspective.

Critics are exhorting skeptical moviegoers to go and take this unusual tour through questions and ideas.

Doug Cummings calls Waking Life "pure joy from start to finish. In the three years of reviewing movies for [Chiaroscuro], I've yet to see a theatrical release more attuned to the spiritual journey or more eager to challenge the audience to consider its theological implications. Is there a better description of 'being born again' than 'waking life'?"

Cornerstone magazine's Mike Hertenstein raves, "One leaves Waking Life with a sense of being awakened to a world worth being awake for: along with a renewed passion to stay awake, live responsibly, and remain open to both others and to wonder."

Mainstream critics express similar exhilaration. Stephen Holden of The New York Times claims, "Waking Life … leaves you buoyed and a little awestruck at the crazy quilt of human experience. It feels like a hearty cinematic slice of America's dream life as it really is."

The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum writes, "In a world where absolutely nothing can be taken for granted, everything qualifies as a miracle of one sort or another, major or minor, and the business of this movie is to chart as many miracles as possible—dozens, hundreds, even thousands at a time, most of them minor yet exquisite."

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For those who would rather squirm than think, multiplexes are offering three Halloween releases that aim to give you goose bumps, one way of the other—Donny Darko, Bones, and Thirteen Ghosts.

Of the three, only Donnie Darko gets any candy from the critics. Darko worries you with the psychological dilemmas of a teenage boy led into violent behavior by an "imaginary friend." As Donnie lashes out at an insensitive, grownup world, the horrors of this movie stay discomfortingly close to reality.

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) calls Darko "imaginative and well-acted," but believes that the film "attacks traditional family values and mocks belief in God."

John Adair (Preview) writes that Donnie is "quite hopeless in life. The overall message is both obvious and fatalistic. The future cannot be avoided, no matter how bad it is, because it's already determined. Therefore, people have little incentive to try to make good choices."

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Mainstream critics are more confused than troubled. Roger Ebert testifies that it "builds twists on top of turns … and we're left scratching our heads."

The Flick Filosopher agrees that the film is a downer, but she thinks there's a method to the hero's madness: "It reflects the feeling of [Generation] Xers that we've been ignored and unappreciated our whole lives. … and also that that doesn't matter. We know the good deeds we've done, even when they go unnoticed and hence uncelebrated."

Bones provides conventional horrors, as a ghost from the ghetto comes back to wreak vengeance on his old enemies. The movie is promoted as rapper Snoop Dogg's break into big-screen acting, but it doesn't look like it will do his career much good.

The USCC says the director "tacks grisly mayhem onto a very thin plot that attempts to make social commentary about ghettos and those who have left them."

John Adair (Preview) complains, "Unlucky victims are impaled, beheaded, mauled by a ravenous dog, and bludgeoned to death. While gory scenes include plenty of blood, many are laughably over the top."

This week's box office surprise, Thirteen Ghosts, traps moviegoers in a haunted house, but critics aren't getting any goosebumps.

Paul Bicking at (Preview) muses, "There is a certain thrill … in the heart-thumping adrenaline rush of a good scare. However, many horror films, this one included, substitute scenes of blood and gore for fright."

The USCC brands it an "absurd, incoherent film" that "focuses on gruesome images that are meant to shock and repel, but never actually scare."

Roger Ebert has a more general complaint—too loud. "The experience of watching the film is literally painful. It hurts the eyes and ears. Aware that their story was thin, that their characters were constantly retracing the same ground and repeating the same words … maybe the filmmakers thought if they turned up the volume the audience might be deceived into thinking that something was happening."

Viewers looking for something haunting and challenging would do well to keep their eyes open for the rerelease of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is making a tour of select cities right now. This polished new print is a spectacular big-screen treat, and it still packs a punch with its questions and speculations about humankind's weaknesses and strengths. (Click here for my review.)

Next week: Things are bound to get better for moviegoers when the makers of Toy Story and A Bug's Life unveil Monsters, Inc.And the Coen Brothers follow up their successful O Brother, Where Art Thou? with a black-and-white noir film titled The Man Who Wasn't There.

Related Elsewhere:

Film Forum appears at ChristianityToday.com every Thursday.