Credit: Vertical/Roadside Attractions
by Selina Lee Featured Film Genre Views

The Pod Generation — Sophie Barthes

August 7, 2023

For centuries, humanity has found ways to outsource certain aspects of childbirth, but these advances were mostly limited to wet nurses, surrogate pregnancies, and, later, in vitro fertilization. But what if the entire nine months of pregnancy could become fully disembodied? The first test tube baby was born in 1978, but director Sophie Barthes takes that premise further in her newest feature, The Pod Generation. Set sometime in the near-ish future, a company called the Womb Center has found a way to contain every step of pregnancy, from fertilization to the “birth” itself, in a smooth plastic pod that resembles a giant easter egg. This sci-fi premise is grounded by a 30-something couple, Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who live in NYC and share a luxury apartment outfitted with 3D food printers and an Alexa-ish personal assistant that chirps out their schedules and serotonin levels. Rachel works for an unnamed tech company where everyone seems to dress in head-to-toe Thom Browne (the production design leans inoffensive: cream, beige, or muted pastels; in this future, real trees and blue skies are rarities). Alvy, for his part, is a dying breed: a botany professor clinging to his old-fashioned greenhouses while peers teach via hologram. 

During a performance evaluation (a highly appropriate time to discuss family planning), Rachel’s boss informs her that a highly coveted spot has opened up at the Womb Center. And unlike contemporary America, where federally-mandated family leave is nonexistent, in the future, childcare is a company perk. Well, not so much babysitting and whatnot — the film doesn’t delve into the HR side of things — but the actual child itself. In a reversal of the pressures women often feel to not start a family during their prime working years, Rachel is subtly pressured into accepting. She’s understandably intrigued: for a modern woman with a demanding, full-time job, an entirely sanitized pregnancy experience, where raging hormones and swollen ankles are a thing of the past, is definitely tempting. The flip side, of course, is that would-be parents can now work uninterrupted throughout their pod baby’s gestation and birth, allowing companies to continue making profits. Far from collapsing in on itself or at least being slowly dismantled, American techno-capitalism is absolutely thriving — just look at the clear walls in Rachel’s office, where privacy is nonexistent and desktop robots measure each employee’s productivity. 

The Womb Center’s parent company, Pegazus, positions their product and procedure as a solution for declining birth rates, airily explaining that rates in the US were so low because pregnancy and childbirth were not “convenient.” Perhaps that statement is a euphemism for more specific grievances, but such reasons are never stated explicitly (Barthes was raised in France, not a country known for poor work-life balance.) Politicians and businessmen at some point decided that pregnancy itself was the problem, not the political, social, and economic climate that contributed to low birth rates in the first place. Pegazus even touts their non-invasive process as a solution for parents who’d otherwise sacrifice their “careers and dreams” — in that order. The implication, of course, is that a “natural” pregnancy is no one’s idea of a dream come true, to say nothing of its career-killing potential. The Womb Center, for its part, has helped create the problem it’s trying to address; there’s a reason their motto is “Solving Childbirth.” And their participating families can plausibly be referred to as patients, customers, or clients. They’re consumers first, parents second — the end product they receive just happens to be a baby.

As Rachel and Alvy acclimate to their noncorporeal pregnancy, the film shifts from sci-fi to rom-com mode. Alvy takes a more involved role as a stay-at-home dad while Rachel finds herself underperforming at work. The one time she brings the pod to the office is a disaster, and she’s told point-blank that doing so again would get her labeled as the “distracted mom.” So much for the pod baby letting her have it all; instead, she’s got the worst of both worlds: she’s unproductive at work and disconnected from her baby. The Womb Center’s director, Linda Woyzchek (theater actor Rosalie Craig), serves as the couple’s foil and foe while satirizing the baby-industrial complex. Like all repressive leaders, she’s either queasily upbeat or bracingly severe, operating the Womb Center with a rigidity that flies in the face of nature’s unpredictability. Even before their babies are born, she shepherds parents through the hyper-competitive world of pre-school admission and demonstrates how toddlers will eventually interact with AI (hint: it’s not human creativity that’s being nurtured). There are some unsettling hints at the state of government regulation — for one thing, private corporations are in charge of schools — but Barthes skates over this and similar opportunities for more pointed satire. 

The film’s overarching motif is of humans existing alongside a highly commodified version of nature that has been pruned beyond recognition; exo-pregnancy is just one example, albeit the most striking and visible. Rachel would rather soak up Vitamin D in “nature pods” (an artificial grotto of fake trees and beach videos, like the rest areas in fancy airports) than drive out to their actual country house, and Alvy’s students can’t fathom the idea of food that isn’t printed on demand. Alvy alone seems to mourn the loss of humanity’s relationship with nature, recognizing that it was tied to their capacity for empathy and emotional connection. There’s a subtle poignancy in the depiction of this tastefully bland and prosperous society, which seems to recognize the importance of what it had only after it’s lost (presumably to the ravages of climate change, though this is also unspoken). Given their similar settings and production design choices, The Pod Generation invites superficial comparison to Spike Jonze’s Her. But while Jonze was fascinated by the lengths people will in order to find connection with each other, Barthes’ central characters are already a nuclear family; their frayed relationship with nature is interesting and plausible, but far less emotionally compelling. Instead, Barthes raises questions around feminism, gender, and the role of technology without feeling compelled to execute a checklist of answers. The one thing she and her characters share is a willingness to embrace the unknown.

DIRECTOR: Sophie Barthes;  CAST: Emilia Clarke, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Vinette Robinson;  DISTRIBUTOR: Vertical/Roadside Attractions;  IN THEATERS: August 11;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 49 min.