The Pod Generation couldn’t come at a better time. In a day and age when artificial intelligence has invaded our daily lives and the art we choose to express ourselves with, writer-director Sophie Barthes (Cold Souls, Madame Bovary) poses a fascinating question. A.I. technology can already think and act for us, both strategically and creatively, but what if it can take away the one thing we as humans will always have over machines? The Pod Generation takes place in the not-so-distant future where natural procreation is no longer needed. Upper-class Americans can now choose to birth their babies through detachable, egg-shaped artificial wombs or “pods,” eliminating the trials and tribulations of harboring a fetus for 9 months. Gone are the days of stretch marks, feet swelling, and uncontrollable cravings – you no longer need to pause your productive life in order to bring a child into the world.
As a rising tech company executive, nurturing a pod is a dream for Rachel (Emilia Clarke). Artificial intelligence is integrated into every aspect of her life, from the Siri/Alexa-like bot in her New York penthouse that decides her clothes to the computer program at her job that monitors her productivity to even her A.I. therapist. When Rachel finally gets a well-earned promotion, her work offers to partially pay for an artificial pregnancy at the “Womb Center” as one of her benefits – in order to keep her in line with the image of a successful American woman. The only thing in Rachel’s way is her husband Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a botanist who prefers a natural pregnancy. Despite botany being viewed as a dying profession, as people now use immersive digital screens or “nature pods” instead of simply going outside, Alvy hasn’t given up on traditional biological science.
This artificial vs. natural conflict gets further complicated when Rachel is taken off the wait list and lands a coveted spot at the Womb Center. After some short-lived discussion, Alvy begrudgingly agrees to pod fertilization to keep his wife happy. This is where The Pod Generation starts to show its true colors as a meditative science fiction piece on the human soul and our self-destructive desire to reach perfection. Just when you think you know where the story is going, filmmaker Sophie Barthes takes an unexpected turn into something much more profound, and hilarious at that. In looking after their pod baby, Alvy comes around to the idea of artificial birth while Rachel gets more and more put off by it. The tables are turned but neither of the two leads are painted as lesser or in the wrong for switching ideals, which is this film’s key to success.
The Pod Generation presents a satirical view on artificial technology, letting the humor speak for itself instead of being directly preachy about A.I. dehumanization. The film is quite nuanced this way, though it still can’t help but poke fun at some of our modern obsessions. The satire in The Pod Generation feels influenced by both the subtle humor in Spike Jonze’s Her and the ridiculousness of Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up. It’s an entertaining in-between, showing us a believable future where humans can pay to breathe plant-produced oxygen with digital currency (or crypto) at cafés and where the Jeff Bezos lookalike CEO of Pegazus, the mega tech brand that created the Womb Center, is advocating for galactic citizenship by moving to Mars. These as just minor comedic nuggets in The Pod Generation – the real fun is had with the baby-making, or lack thereof.
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Emilia Clarke, who also executive produces, make for a dynamic pairing in The Pod Generation, capturing all the irony and heartbreak in their revelatory journey to parenthood. They each let loose on their comedic chops and it’s great to see the duo flaunt their range while having a blast at it. Though they get equal time to shine, Clarke arguably gets the heavier material to work with and does a superb job of balancing comedy and drama. If anything, The Pod Generation makes a good case for Clarke to tackle more peculiar genre projects like these, since she owns some of the most memorable moments of the film. It would be shameful not to also mention 1899 star Rosalie Craig, who plays our main couple’s pod counselor to an eerie yet comical extreme.
For all that it captures so well through a philosophical sci-fi lens, The Pod Generation takes a noticeable dip leading into its third act. It’s not so much about the story but rather the film losing the necessary momentum to keep you thoroughly engaged. The ending itself is commendable and inspiring, however, by the time it arrives it loses some impact due to this late pacing. There are future worldbuilding elements that filmmaker Sophie Barthes leaves intentionally vague as well. She leaves our imaginations to fill in the blanks and this mostly works, except for when this vision feels only at half-potential. Certain major details like Rachel’s job measuring people’s “Bliss Index” and just how damaged the future global environment is are left unexplained, which is not a deal-breaker but could have surely boosted the movie’s weighty material if we knew a little bit more.
Even if it does lose some steam in the second half, The Pod Generation still succeeds as a noble piece of science fiction. The film portrays a future that hilariously tries to be sleek and innovative with overbearing hints of feng shui, blurring the line between what’s natural and artificial. Take Rachel’s A.I. therapist, for example, which is a giant digital eyeball covered in a wreath of flowers. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh lights The Pod Generation with a soft sheen and frames visuals that can be awe-inspiring and uncanny at the same time, creating a version of the future that doesn’t seem too far off from our bleak reality. When you throw in chic costume designs and a deviating score from Sacha Galperine and Evgueni Galperine, The Pod Generation stands out from its recent sci-fi contemporaries.
The Pod Generation showcases why people are so inclined to rely on something without a soul to get through life, and the reason always comes back to us running away from our unexplainable imperfections, like having recurring bad dreams or fears of failure – the things that make us human to begin with. And despite this being an answer hidden in plain sight, The Pod Generation captures it exceptionally. The satire of the film’s world never drowns out the real drama between Chiwetel Ejiofor and Emilia Clarke; this pair getting the chance to give fine-tuned performances like these in science fiction is worth the watch alone. At their acting caliber, only these two could make something as silly as carrying a large robotic egg in a baby harness and feeding it like a living Tamagotchi from a smartphone app feel so poignant.