In Sophie Barnes’s The Pod Generation, Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are a couple who, at one point, debate the benefits and downsides of natural delivery vs having a kid in a pod. A developing technology around the end of the twenty-first century has enabled more affluent folks to have the entire birth process take place in an exterior pod.
Alvy, a botanist who believes in the traditional ways of nature that the rest of the world has seemingly forgotten, prefers natural delivery, whereas Rachel, who has recently been promoted at her software business, prefers the pod.
By the end of their debate, Rachel declares that this is a packaging vs substance debate—that it doesn’t matter how the kid arrives as long as the objectives are the same. Similarly, The Pod Generation is an excellent package, a fully realised universe that is always a marvel to see, be it the new technology or the wonderful costumes, but the substance alone is insufficient to maintain this tale.
The Pod Generation, like Barnes’ 2009 film Cold Souls, revolves around an intriguing technology that lacks a compelling tale. The Womb Centre is a business that lets consumers personalise their childbirth experience. They may pick the child’s gender, feed the foetus via an app, and decide what sorts of “flavours” they’ll prefer later in life, among other things.
The parent(s) can also transport this baby in an egg, which comes with a carrying bag and a light-up stand. By relieving the parent’s physical burden, they are free to enjoy their lives as they like, while simultaneously bringing a new life into the world after nine months.
With Rachel and Alvy’s opposing perspectives on the world, The Pod Generation becomes an issue of which is better: not embracing technology in any form, or being too dependant on it for everything. On a larger scale, The Pod Generation attempts to demonstrate how pregnancy affects both a father and a mother in various ways, as well as how this sort of birthing process may shift gender roles within this process, while also making an absurdist statement on the future of technology. Barthes’ tale falls short on both counts.
Barnes seemed to be getting close to stating something about this process that goes deeper than the surface level at times. We observe the difficulty of having a baby at work, a picket line against The Womb Center’s practise, and we learn about AI’s utter disdain for the relevance of dreams in humans. However, all of these threads indicate the potential that never materialises. Aside from the underlying technology in this process, this is a very normal narrative of a couple’s hardships and fears as they await the arrival of their first child.
Meanwhile, the technological side of this narrative is almost too ridiculous to be taken seriously as a threat in our near future. Personal assistants, from desktop AI to computerised therapists, all have a massive floating eye that looks at the user, and the fact that the majority of people believe virtual trees are equally as significant as actual trees makes Alvy appear like an old guy whining about how “back in my day.” The Pod Generation opens with a fascinating perspective on the future of technology, as we witness Alvy and Rachel’s house come to life, meeting their needs in various ways, and how beneficial, but also dangerous, this next stage in technological progress may be. The film, however, becomes less of a critique and more of a collection of half-considered notions as it seeks to investigate this element.
This results in two hours of a strange, though frequently absurd, technological future that is never completely explored, and a look at pregnancy that never gets past the surface. As a result, the picture drags itself through the motions, pretending to communicate something more essential than it really is.
That’s a shame because the film is technically stunning. Even when the writing falters, the magnificent cinematography by Barnes’ regular partner Andrij Parekh (Blue Valentine, Half Nelson) and the wonderful set design lead the eye to something in this universe.
Despite this, the performances in this film are extremely good. Clarke, in particular, is incredibly lovely in what may be her greatest film role yet, while Ejiofor, as always, elevates every scene he’s in. Even if the screenplay doesn’t always support them, watching these two together is always a joy.
Rosalie Craig, who plays Linda Wozcheck, who helps the couple learn about the procedure at The Womb Centre, is also terrific. Craig portrays this part with a tinge of threat beneath the surface, as well as ambivalence regarding how infants were created in the past to prepare for this new future.
The Pod Generation finishes with a thud, leaving the audience to wonder what the point of the whole thing was. The intention is to convey important statements about the future of technology and the experience of childbirth, but Barnes’ script never quite gets to that point. By the end of The Pod Generation, it is evident that packaging has won the struggle against content.