THE POD GENERATION (Sundance FF2023) – Review by Nadine Whitney

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Near future dystopia/science fiction narratives are not a new concept. Black Mirror created by Charlie Booker capitalised on our collective anxiety about technology and was often prescient about how contemporary society is shaping itself in the Western World. Sophie Barthes’ The Pod Generation is so adjacent to our future that she incorporates technology from now almost seamlessly. Current generation iPads abound as well as phones that are recognisably the ones most people use at the moment. The “nowness” of Barthes’ vision makes it all the more immediate.

Married couple Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) live in a metropolitan city. Everything about it is excessively clean and planned. People go to ‘Breathing Bars’ equipped with plants as a routine equal to taking a coffee break. AI makes replicated breakfast for people and help them to choose their outfits in the morning. The AI also checks in on their mood and bodily functions ensuring that they are getting the right amount of nutrients.

Rachel works at what appears to be a PR firm doing what could be considered one of the most useless jobs in any society – increasing the algorithmic reach of influencers. She’s doing well and although others at the company fear that programming advances will make them redundant, Rachel is being fast-tracked by the HR department of Folio (a Pegazus company) for a senior position. There’s just one thing the company is worried about – has Rachel got any plans to start a family? And if so, does she plan on doing it the old-fashioned way of carrying the child herself?

Alvy’s job is very different. He is a botanist who believes that nature needs to be sustained. Working as a teacher in a university environment he encourages his students to eat food directly from plants. Trees and plants have become a commodity that are available to people via ‘Nature Pods’ but the notion of anyone actually interacting with the natural world is fast fading. The AI in his shared apartment with Rachel seems distinctly hostile to him. Barthes, not being subtle with metaphor, ensures we know that Alvy is a dying breed and certainly unlikely to welcome Rachel’s suggestion as to how they conceive a child.

In this ‘Brave New World’ outsourcing a pregnancy is considered an elite and enviable activity. Outsourcing means that parents (or single mothers, same sex couples) can go to a Pegazus owned Womb Center and have their foetus grown in a pod. Rachel knows Alvy well enough to understand that he will be reluctant to engage in such an activity, but she approaches the subject with him and despite his lack of enthusiasm agrees to the Womb Center. Ostensibly freeing women from the burden of carrying a child is the ultimate feminist act, one Rachel’s friend Alice (Vinette Robinson) is currently undergoing. The argument that the pod allows fathers to bond with the unborn foetus as much as mothers by caring for and feeding the pod (via an app) gives them the experience of pregnancy that equal that of the mother and creates a balanced parenting experience.

The Director of the Womb Center, Linda Wozcheck (a chilling Rosalie Craig) knows how to sell the “product” she also knows how to sell upgrades and extras. Just sign on the dotted line and everything your foetus needs will be taken care of. No need to burden yourself with morning sickness, missing work, tiredness, mood swings… the pod will do it all. For a little extra prospective parents will have access to the best schools Pegazus can provide. Not to worry if pod babies grow up to quite literally being unable to have dreams and do not understand the concept of play. The children of the future will be perfectly functional members of a society that has privatised all education and healthcare.

Barthes’ satire is blunt. Pegazus could easily be any major tech company (although it resembles one in particular). The Founder (Jean-Marc Barr) regularly appears on screen in interviews talking about efficiency and creating a society filled with productive workers. Nature is irrelevant (easier and cheaper to replace with holograms), the parent will soon become irrelevant. Even therapists are now AI because pesky things like subjectivity get in the way of analysis. People who protest such measures are seen as radicals.

As much as Barthes has a solid concept she oversells it. Both Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor do their best to add an emotional component to the film, but the script is sterile and clearly didactic. Any nuance is negated by the simplistic message that people let technology run their lives unquestionably. While this is true to an extent in contemporary society, especially one where people give up their right to privacy willingly to algorithms, the issue of giving away our humanity to technology is too easy a target and has been ongoing since Metropolis and Modern Times – let alone Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or works such as The Matrix, Terminator, and the recent techno-horror M3GAN.

Many of us simply hit “accept” on all the terms and conditions that our devices ask us to. Barthes is asking what happens when we click accept on terms and conditions that have the capacity to take away biological functions and fundamentally just give over the species to a tech giant. A tech company co-opting feminist ideas for profit is something that already happens. People gravitate to apps for their mental well-being over seeing a traditional therapist. The Pod Generation does understand contemporary living and takes it to an absurdist but logical conclusion. If Sophie Barthes had been able to work in a strongeer emotional core the film would be successful, as it stands it is a mid-tier Black Mirror episode that makes one consider where we are going but offers too little to be a truly unsettling dystopian tale.

The Pod Generation played at Sundance Film Festival 2023 where it was awarded the 2023 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, presented to an outstanding feature film about science or technology

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.