In Sophie Barthes’ first feature film in 2009, cold souls, medical science had achieved the ability to extract and exchange human souls, but with complications. In his new film, The pod generation, technology plays with nature again, this time usurping the experience of pregnancy, eliminating all those annoying inconveniences like morning sickness and stretch marks. It’s a provocative premise, full of philosophical questions, and the French-born writer-director constructs her elaborate concept with skill and consistency. She also has appealing leads in Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who find subtle comedy without pushing for it. But coldly intellectualized science fiction is a difficult subgenre to pull off.
With its sleek, late-21st-century design and playful ruminations on corporate AI technology supplanting authentic human experience, the film at its finest is reminiscent of Spike Jonze. Her. But it lacks the heart and true sense of desire that made this sci-fi romance such a stunner. There are also tone issues; the humor dulls once the setup is in motion, and a haunting flatness creeps in just when the central couple dilemma should escalate.
The pod generation
Babies R Us.
New Yorkers Rachel (Clarke) and Alvy (Ejiofor) seem to have built a harmonious union by being fundamental opposites. She’s on an upward career trajectory at a multi-pronged tech company where everyone seems to be dressed as Thom Browne; he enjoys hanging out in his greenhouse in old t-shirts and woolen sweaters, teaching students the miracles of botany while resisting pressure from the biology department to cut costs by switching to holographic flora.
Their home is ruled by an all-seeing AI assistant named Elena, who cooks their breakfast, selects their outfits, monitors their “happiness index,” and reminds Rachel when she’s late for some nature time.
This involves relaxing in natural modules, tree-like structures with a cocoon of greenery to snuggle up in while watching videos of the waves; or hanging out in a bar of fresh air with an oxygen mask attached to some kind of terrarium. There are amusing observations about humanity’s growing distance and distrust of nature, especially when Alvy’s students hesitate to taste a fig from, eww, an actual tree, not made by a 3D printer.
When Rachel is offered a promotion, it is feared that wanting to expand her family will dampen her career momentum. But with that comes a perk in the form of financial assistance from the company and a possible acceleration of the waiting list for a new affiliate known as the Womb Center.
This much-requested service takes the hassle out of pregnancy from a woman’s uterus and develops babies from fertilization to birth in synthetic egg-shaped pods. Fetuses are stimulated by music, podcasts, literature and sound therapy, in addition to having the palate sensitized to a wide variety of foods.
The czar at the head of the apex company Pegazus (Jean-Marc Barr) justifies the development as a necessary corrective to the falling birth rate, allowing women to focus on professional fulfilment. But there’s also a quietly insidious suggestion of shaping a future generation of malleable corporate puppets, since Pegazus also stepped in to fund and run education after the government shutdown.
Given Alvy’s vocal feelings about the commodification of contemporary life and the resulting emotional starvation for society, Rachel is slow to divulge the news when she applies to the Womb Center and lands a spot.
She shares her concern that Alvy is promoting a natural birth with her AI therapist, a giant eye in a circle of flowers, who responds by asking why should the technological alternative be considered less natural? Rachel goes so far as to walk around the business and pay the deposit before dropping the bombshell on an understandably alarmed Alvy. But after a few capricious round trips, he agrees to move forward.
Their interactions with Womb Center director Linda Woyzchek are some of the funniest scenes in the movie. She’s played by London stage star Rosalie Craig with glassy professional warmth masking an edge of brittle condescension when Rachel and Alvy begin to question protocol. This happens after they bring the pod home and bond with it, becoming reluctant to return it to the incubation center as the due date nears.
While Clarke and Ejiofor bring a touch of levity to their interaction, the storyline becomes a bit sketchy as their attitudes begin to change, changing position for a moment. Alvy becomes inseparable from the pod, attaching her to her body with a specially designed harness and causing Rachel to worry that her attachment is too obsessive. But as her dreams become more connected to nature, she also becomes more consumed by the life they cook, causing her productivity to plummet at work, where she is warned about becoming a “distracted mother”.
The feminist angle is expressed by Rachel’s colleague and friend, Alice (Vinette Robinson), who is also expecting a pod baby with her partner Ben (Jelle De Beule). She says that by making the responsibility of motherhood unnecessary for women, penis envy can now be replaced with male uterus envy, putting the sexes on an equal footing – which hasn’t only makes sense if you don’t think about it for too long. Elsewhere, groups of feminist activists are demonstrating, waving “keep your hands off our wombs” signs.
Where the film loses momentum is in Rachel and Alvy’s refusal to stick to Womb Center procedure, though Linda effectively reminds them that they have no control, since the company retains ownership of the pod; they are only tenants.
Barthes injects the expectation of a dark turn into thriller territory once the omnipotence of the corporate overlords is established. But instead, the action wanders off to a routine happy ending, offering the reassurance that love and nature will prevail even if everything up to this point indicates it’s been outsourced. This makes the movie feel like it’s run out of ideas before its conclusion; a more sinister note might have left the audience with something to chew on.
That said, it’s certainly watchable – done with plenty of polish in the architecture and set design details of Clement Price-Thomas and shot by Andrij Parekh in the soft tones of a world built to be sterile and reassuring. There’s an understated whimsical quality to much of Evgueni and Sacha Galperine’s electronic score, sometimes reminiscent of French duo Air’s work with Sofia Coppola. But despite the film’s utterly believable conjecture of technology rendering nature obsolete and procreation becoming the privilege of the wealthy, The pod generation never fully hatch.
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