Poor Things is a movie seemingly concocted in a lab to provoke conservatives. The film, which has therefore generated strong Oscar buzz ahead of Sunday’s ceremony, is now streaming on Hulu and Disney+ with a Hulu subscription, meaning curious onlookers might be tempted to watch it. They shouldn’t waste their time. 

Based on a 1992 novel, Poor Things is the coming-of-age story of a woman created by mad scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). When he discovers the dead body of a pregnant woman, he reanimates her adult body after giving her the fetus’s brain. Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), thus created, is a strange specimen: a seemingly grown woman with the impulses and intellect of a toddler. 

We’re told her brain develops at a much faster rate than that of a normal child, which is supposed to make the following less weird. Baxter absconds with the local cad to travel the world with him while having near-constant sex, to which, of course, we audiences are unfortunately exposed. 

When Bella discovers that her charming rake (played by Mark Ruffalo) is narcissistic and, worse, boring, she leaves him to make a living at a French brothel. There, audiences are exposed to all manner of men and their fetishes in the film’s sordid sex scenes, supposedly to help us see the diversity of experience that is opening Bella’s eyes to the world.

One such encounter disturbingly includes a father who brings his two young boys to watch for educational purposes. This scene, like the others, is played for laughs. How absurd a scenario that silly, whimsical Bella has gotten herself into again!

Bella returns to England when Godwin, whom she calls “God,” is on his deathbed. “I tired of it,” she says of the prostitution, “but it was fascinating.” She meets the man who was once her husband (or her father), who tries to coerce her into staying with him. She manages to escape and copies her now-dead “God” by fitting a goat’s brain into the body of her husband/father. 

All of this and more — Bella, at one point, attends a socialist meeting and says of her prostituting, “We are our own means of production” — is crammed into a tedious two-plus hour runtime. Each shot is highly unsettling, if not from its subject matter, then from director Yorgos Lanthimos’s signature wide-angle shots, the disconcerting soundtrack, or the oversaturated color scheme. Aesthetically and morally, this perverted, Daliesque film is deeply disturbing. 

Feminists have complained that the film is reprehensible because of its creepy men, to which the film’s defenders have been quick to argue: It’s not endorsing them. So, amid all this muck, what is it endorsing, exactly?

Bella’s arc may bring her from a bumbling baby to a worldly, unattached woman who sips gin in her garden, but she’s no less childish at the end than at the start. Her aim in life is to accumulate various experiences until she gets bored so she can look back on a multilayered, uninhibited life that has taught her many lessons. “I am a flawed, experimenting person,” she says, explaining away her moral missteps. 

It may not occur to our Franken-heroine that there are some lessons you actually don’t have to learn yourself (“prostitution is bad” being one of them). Instead of looking outward for guidance, Bella peers inward, thus wasting her life on trivial, and redundant, pursuits. 

Yet the film is obsessed with the idea of the “interesting” and “fascinating.” Godwin’s final words are, “It’s all very interesting, what is happening.” Is it? What’s more interesting is watching a protagonist’s character develop as she faces difficult moral choices. There is no mandate in Poor Things except the one to let everyone else do what they choose. 

Bella’s self-exploration may be new to her, but it’s the same, tired tale we’ve heard time and again. Far from “fascinating,” it’s a disturbing, self-indulgent misadventure better left forgotten.