The Pod Generation, 2023.
Written and Directed by Sophie Bartes.
Starring Emilia Clarke, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rosalie Craig, Vinette Robinson, and Jean-Marc Barr.
A rising tech company executive, Rachel lands a coveted spot at the Womb Center, which offers couples a convenient (and shareable) maternity by way of detachable artificial wombs, or pods.
Sophie Barthes’ (Madame Bovary) first film in almost an entire decade ambitiously raises a bevy of intriguing ideas about the potential future of humanity, yet denies them more thoughtful engagement through its uneven scattergun approach.
Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are a New York couple living in a near-future where technology is at peak intrusiveness – er, convenience – in human lives. One day, Rachel is granted a slot at the ultra-exclusive Womb Center – a clinic where couples can “grow” their child in a detachable artificial womb (or “pod”), allowing them to share the experience of gestation. But tensions soon enough arise due to Rachel securing the spot in the Womb Center without consulting Alvy, a naturist who would prefer Rachel to become pregnant in the conventional way. And so, the pair come to an impasse over how they should best start their family.
Barthes’ film certainly isn’t wanting for a conversation starter of a setup, asking audiences to consider what convenience really means to them, while pondering the notion of “progress” as pitted against human nature. The primary tension involves the idea that motherhood is seen as a practical obstacle to female agency, primarily in the workplace, and how this technological breakthrough can theoretically level the playing field and re-balance the societal scales, where women are no longer “behind.”
Unsurprisingly the tech company behind the pods acutely exploits the whole “bodily autonomy” narrative to market their products, but on the other hand, does humanity as a whole lose something when natural births go out the window? And isn’t heavily incentivising women to forego traditional birth itself just another measure of control?
Barthes’ film notes how the very concept of “nature” might change in a future that views the pod as an organic extension of human development. This is a future where people can spend time in “nature pods” and experience a rural getaway without ever actually leaving their city apartment, where your coffee is poured and your toast “printed” just as you wake up, and where you can even visit an “air bar” to glug down crisp oxygen through a mask, because why the hell not?
Perhaps most cannily to our own modern moment, much of the film also grapples with contemporary fears of AI advancement, where when so much of the human experience is mediated by the whims of an ever-changing proxy intelligence pooled from collective human data, aren’t we left estranged from each other, and even ourselves? When your relationship therapist is an AI, a spiritual crisis seems inevitable.
Though the film certainly doesn’t offer a blanket condemnation of technological advancement, the firm responsible for the pods, Pegazus, is certainly a parody of big, bad corporations. It’s little surprise the head of the company is a dead ringer for Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and one of the script’s more inspired ideas deals with the notion that corporations aggressively protect their interests, to the extent of even wanting to place rights management restrictions on a growing, unborn baby.
The first act is by far the most interesting part of the movie, as Barthes plants our feet in this world and allows us to drink in the impressive production design and overall tactile world-building; a glimpse at a future where tech has micro-managed every aspect of human existence from gut health to wardrobe choices.
But once Rachel and Alvy do indeed agree to raise their pod-fetus together, The Pod Generation becomes a broader, less-interesting parenting drama with a sci-fi fringe. There are some turnarounds in perspective of both protagonists as they come to appreciate the other’s point of view, but the dialogue becomes too prosaic as it attempts to parse the film’s themes, and some of the humour is just too pat for its own good – such as when Alvy won’t have sex with Rachel while the pod is in the same room.
Again, Barthes refuses to fully come down on one side of the argument, though clearly – and reasonably – favours moderation and balance where tech’s influence on the future of the human race is concerned. It’s a film that begs us to consider the many great things technology can do for us, but as the kids say these days, remember to touch grass every once in a while.
Pic’s flaws aside, the two central performances are plenty captivating; despite a not-flawless American accent, Emilia Clarke is a hoot as the initially chirpy young woman seeing an opportunity for tech to give her everything she wants. Chiwetel Ejiofor meanwhile shines in the more interesting of the two roles; a man fearful of a future in which the basic tenets of human behaviour are stripped away in the stead of a “better” life. Clarke and Ejiofor both bring dimension and sympathy to their characters and perspectives, even if the script runs out of road long before they feel like they’ve had their full say.
This is a near-miss of a movie, rustling up some neat ideas, two solid leads, and some slick production values, but not quite digging into the meat of its hook, despite running close to two hours. There’s a real lack of narrative propulsion here, which is a shame given the frankly ridiculous promise of that logline.
This blunt-edged satire tackles a swath of intriguing themes – technology, gender roles, modern parenting, bodily autonomy, ownership, and feminism – but can’t quite add up to a compelling, thought-provoking whole.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.