By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Over 200 years since its initial publication, Frankenstein (also known by its full title Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus) continues to grip readers and elicit strong emotions. Mary Shelley’s iconic novel is perhaps one of the earliest works of science fiction, spawned an entire genre of horror stories, and deftly explored themes of belonging, suffering, and creation. Since its publication in 1818, strands of Shelley’s work pop up in all sorts of books, films, and television shows, with some harboring more overtly Frankenstein elements than others. Such monumental influence means Frankenstein has had plenty of poor adaptations (look no further than I, Frankenstein) and a fair few exceptional ones (most recently, the Showtime series Penny Dreadful). Now, with the release of Searchlight Pictures’ Poor Things, acclaimed director Yorgos Lanthimos takes his swing at breathing new life into the classic tale of Frankenstein.
Poor Things stars Emma Stone as Bella Baxter, a woman who commits suicide and is subsequently resurrected/reanimated by eccentric surgeon Dr. Godwin Baxter (played by Willem Dafoe). In true Frankenstein fashion, Bella is initially characterized by an infant-like blank state as she clumsily and endearingly discovers what it means to be alive. As time passes and Bella is studied by Dr. Baxter and medical student Max McCandles (played by Ramy Youssef), the young woman captures the interest of lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (played by Mark Ruffalo) and begins to explore her newfound autonomy.
To compare Poor Things to Shelley’s Frankenstein should not diminish the quality of Yorgos Lanthimos’ film, and yet the striking similarities invite inevitable comparison. Poor Things is credited as an adaptation of a novel by Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, which itself leaned heavily into Frankenstein-esque tropes and themes of resurrection and the purpose of life. In this sense, those seeking a wholly original cinematic experience may leave with unmet expectations as Poor Things, while certainly novel in a variety of aesthetic and thematic ways, is admittedly derivative.
This doesn’t mean to say, however, that Poor Things is not a film of considerable quality. Lanthimos, who last amazed audiences with The Favourite (also starring Emma Stone), takes the premise of Shelley’s Frankenstein and crafts an unhinged, abstract, and genuinely hilarious adventure of a film here. This adventure tracks Stone’s Bella character as she undergoes an accelerated human experience and learns of the world and life itself. Such a premise allows for all sorts of ‘fish-out-of-water’ style humor as Bella often acts inappropriately (often sexually) as she simply does not know any better. It’s a point of humor that could wear thin fairly quickly over the course of a 2+ hour movie, but Stone’s nuanced performance means this is never the case.
The journey of Bella Baxter and, in turn, Stone’s fascinating portrayal of the character are among the year’s most impressive cinematic elements. Babbling and stumbling her way through the early weeks of her life, Bella first explores the world like an infant would. Mistakes are made, social conventions are broken, and the audience is treated to a wealth of hilariously endearing moments. But, like Frankenstein’s monster, Bella evolves quickly. Learning more about the world around her sees initial overwhelming wonderment coupled with a growing realization of starker realities as she grapples with more complex philosophical and existential issues, including empathy and her own creation. Bella’s journey is fascinating from beginning to end and effectively taps into many of the same questions Shelley explored in her seminal novel. Why are we here? What does it mean to be human? Shelley’s novel has endured for over 200 years for a reason – it poses groundbreaking questions of our experience – and Poor Things is definitely evidence of this endurance.
Where Poor Things most strikingly diverges from Frankenstein (at least, thematically) is its focus on human sexuality and the expectations placed on women. On the surface, director Lanthimos and screenwriter Tony McNamara use sexuality for humor; it’s hilarious to see a bumbling Bella discover and pursue sexual pleasures in complete ignorance of social norms. But there’s far more subtext to this theme beyond the humor. Sexuality, as fundamental to the human experience, becomes a prominent interest of Bella’s. As she intellectually matures, Bella evolves beyond sole focus on the pleasure her sexuality affords and begins to understand the implications of sexuality and how she is viewed as a woman in a male-dominated society. The men in her life, varied in their personalities and motivations, share a common element – they take advantage of Bella. Dafoe’s Dr. Baxter both humanizes (by creating her) and dehumanizes (by studying her) Bella for his own pursuit of knowledge. More overtly taking advantage of Bella is Ruffalo’s Duncan Wedderburn (who comically sounds like Will Ferrell’s Sherlock Holmes from Holmes & Watson), who insidiously takes advantage of Bella’s level of intelligence and desire for sexuality. Meanwhile, young medical student Max McCandles takes advantage in a more benevolent way with his romantic pursuit of Bella. It’s through Bella’s experiences in relation to these three primary male figures in her life that Poor Things enriches the story of Frankenstein with a deft exploration of sexuality.
Further allowing Poor Things to stand apart is Yorgos Lanthimos’ unique directorial vision. Lanthimos has crafted a certain style that audiences can expect from him given similarities in the likes of The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and The Favourite. With Poor Things, Lanthimos hones his craft even further and delivers his most confident work to date. Adopting an aesthetic that is a cross between David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return and the video game Bioshock: Infinite, Poor Things is undoubtedly a stunning film. Every frame is meticulously constructed by director Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, which, coupled with an intricate attention to detail in production design, make Poor Things an aesthetic pleasure, even when it’s not breaking new narrative ground.
Mary Shelley’s seminal novel Frankenstein is reimagined with visual flair and particular attention to human sexuality in Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest work. Poor Things taps into many of the philosophical and existential questions posed in Shelley’s text, which highlights the enduring fascination with such themes. Emma Stone anchors Lanthimos’ film with a varied performance reaching the heights of humor and depths of vulnerability, while Willem Dafoe and Mark Ruffalo (if one can overlook the ridiculous accent) impress in supporting roles. Poor Things may not be the most original of movies, but it’s ability to elicit laughs and philosophical contemplation in equal measure make it a worthy companion piece to Shelley’s Frankenstein.