In Sophie Barthes’ 2009 debut feature, Cold Souls, medical science had achieved the ability to extract and exchange human souls, albeit with complications. In her new movie, The Pod Generation, technology is messing with nature again, this time usurping the experience of pregnancy, removing all those bothersome downsides like morning sickness and stretch marks. It’s a provocative premise, fraught with philosophical questions, and the French-born writer-director builds her elaborate concept with skill and coherence. She also has appealing leads in Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who find subtle comedy without pushing for it. But coolly intellectualized sci-fi is a tricky subgenre to pull off.
With its sleek late 21st century design and droll ruminations on corporate AI technology supplanting authentic human experience, the movie at its best recalls Spike Jonze’s Her. But it lacks the heart and the genuine sense of yearning that made that sci-fi romance such a stunner. There are also tonal issues; the humor gets dulled once the setup is in motion and a nagging flatness creeps in just as the central couple’s quandary should be gathering steam.
The Pod Generation
The Bottom Line
Babies R Us.
New Yorkers Rachel (Clarke) and Alvy (Ejiofor) seem to have built a harmonious union out of being fundamental opposites. She’s on an upward career trajectory at a multipronged tech company where everyone appears to be dressed in Thom Browne; he likes to potter around his greenhouse in old t-shirts and woolly sweaters, teaching college students about the miracles of botany while resisting the biology department’s push to cut costs by switching to hologram flora.
Their home is governed by an all-seeing AI assistant named Elena that prepares their breakfast, selects their outfits, monitors their “bliss index” and reminds Rachel when she’s overdue for some nature time.
That involves relaxing in nature pods, tree-like structures with a cocoon of greenery to nestle in while watching wave videos; or hanging out at a fresh air bar with an oxygen mask hooked up to a kind of terrarium. There are funny observations of humanity’s increasing distance from and distrust of nature, notably when Alvy’s students are reluctant to taste a fig grown from, eww, an actual tree, not fabricated by a 3D printer.
When Rachel is offered a promotion, there’s some concern that wanting to extend her family might stall her professional momentum. But it comes with a perk in the form of company financial assistance and possible fast-tracking through the waiting list at a new affiliate known as the Womb Center.
That in-demand service takes the fuss of pregnancy out of a woman’s uterus and develops babies from fertilization through birth in synthetic egg-shaped pods. The fetuses are stimulated by music, podcasts, literature and sound therapy, in addition to having their palates sensitized to a wide variety of food.
The czar at the helm of umbrella corporation Pegazus (Jean-Marc Barr) justifies the development as a necessary corrective to declining birth rates, allowing women to focus on career fulfillment. But there’s also a quietly insidious suggestion of shaping a future generation of malleable corporate puppets, since Pegazus has also stepped in to fund and manage education after the government stopped.
Given Alvy’s vocal feelings about the commodification of contemporary life and the resulting emotional starvation of 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 will favor a natural birth with her AI therapist, a giant eye in a circle of flowers, which responds by asking why should the tech alternative be considered any less natural? Rachel goes as far as taking the company tour and paying the deposit before dropping the bombshell on an understandably alarmed Alvy. But after some tetchy back and forth, he consents to move forward.
Their interactions with Womb Center director Linda Woyzchek are some of the movie’s most amusing scenes. She’s played by London stage star Rosalie Craig with a glassy professional warmth masking an edge of brittle condescension when Rachel and Alvy begin questioning the protocol. That happens after they have taken the pod home and bonded with it, becoming reluctant to return it to the incubation center as the due date approaches.
While Clarke and Ejiofor bring a light touch to their interplay, the script becomes a tad schematic as their attitudes begin to shift, for a while switching positions. Alvy becomes inseparable from the pod, strapping it to his body with a specially designed harness and causing Rachel to grow concerned that his attachment is too obsessive. But as her dreams become more connected to nature, she too becomes more consumed by the life they are cooking, causing her productivity to dip at work, where she’s warned against becoming a “distracted mother.”
The feminist angle is voiced by Rachel’s co-worker and friend Alice (Vinette Robinson), who’s also expecting a pod baby with her partner Ben (Jelle De Beule). She says by making the responsibility of maternity unnecessary for women, penis envy can now be replaced by male womb envy, putting the sexes on more equal footing — which only makes sense if you don’t think about it for too long. Elsewhere, feminist activist groups are seen protesting, waving “keep your hands off our wombs” signs.
Where the film loses momentum is in Rachel and Alvy’s refusal to stick with Womb Center procedure, despite Linda effectively reminding them they have no control, since the company retains ownership of the pod; they’re just renters.
Barthes injects the expectation of a dark turn into thriller territory once the omnipotence of the corporate overlords is established. But instead, the action saunters toward a routine happy ending, offering reassurance that love and nature will prevail even though everything up to that point indicates that it’s been outsourced. This makes it seem like the movie has run out of ideas before its conclusion; a more sinister note might have left audiences with something to chew on.
That said, it’s certainly watchable — made with a great deal of polish in the architecture and design details of Clement Price-Thomas’ sets and shot by Andrij Parekh in the soft tones of a world built to be reassuringly sterile. There’s an understated whimsical quality in much of Evgueni and Sacha Galperine’s electronic score, which occasionally recalls the work of French duo Air with Sofia Coppola. But for all the movie’s quite credible conjecture about technology rendering nature obsolete and procreation becoming the privilege of the wealthy, The Pod Generation never fully hatches.