Oct 31, 2001 at 12:00 am

Alienation is universal, whether you’re a psycho from another planet or the psychiatrist assigned to cure him. The question of K-PAX becomes who’s curing whom.

Prot (Kevin Spacey) seems to appear at the end of a dusty shaft of light in the middle of Grand Central Station. He ends up carted to a Manhattan psychiatric institute and added to Dr. Mark Powell’s (Jeff Bridges) roster of two-dimensionally Hollywood mental patients. In his sessions, Prot vividly describes his home planet, K-PAX, as a land almost right out of John Lennon’s utopian “Imagine” — and sneaks in a few clichéd social criticisms on the side. Out in the ward, he’s soon the inmates’ King of Hearts. As he demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of astronomy and changes the lives of his fellow patients and his doctor for the better, questions loom: Who or what is he, and will they find out before his scheduled departure time of 5:51 a.m., July 27?

Is Prot an extraterrestrial or not? Charles Leavitt’s script of Gene Brewer’s novel sits on the fantastic fence of the question, digging plot holes on either side. This causes K-PAX to straddle genres as well. It’s neither the extraterrestrial melodrama of Bridges’ titular Starman (1984) nor the psychological mystery (not a whodunit, but a who-is-it) of Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945): Rather it attempts to have its extraterrestrial and cure him too.

Kevin Spacey returns to the screen as another variation of the highly intelligent, psychologically damaged character that he could patent. His Prot is prismatic down to his beatific Mona Lisa smile (that of an interstellar tourist — or a mental patient on the verge of blissful catatonia?).

But it’s the hackneyed characters and moments that damage this movie. Some of these people and events could only happen on a planet called Hollywood.

Visit the official K-Pax Web site at www.k-pax.com.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].