Sundance 2023: Curious questions raised in the futuristic The Pod Generation are never fully settled but the film has plenty of heart to absorb the viewer’s attention

EDITOR’S NOTE:Thomas Dugrospez wrote the interview, with additional details by Les Roka

Already an award winner coming into Sundance, this year, The Pod Generation is one of those rare movies where every answer the viewer might be given to a question motivates them to pose yet one more question and later even more questions. Written and directed by Sophie Barthes, the film does a wonderful job at portraying an Aldous Huxley-inspired New York City in the 22nd century where corporations such as the fictional Pegazus appear to offer the maximizing convenient and unobtrusive solution to all modern life problems.

The Pod Generation was tapped for the 2023 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, which carries a $20,000 cash award, a nice resource injection for any indie filmmaker. The prize jury, comprising scientists and film industry professionals, cited the film for its engagement with ethical issues and the potential societal impact of reproductive technology, its focus on evolving gender roles and what parenthood might look like in the advent of AI technology. 

In a production with collaborators from Belgium, France and U.K., Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor lead an outstanding cast. In the opening. Rachel (Emilia Clarke) seems to have it all: a job with a great salary and potential for career advancement, a stunning apartment in the city, and a husband, Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a biologist who genuinely loves her and respects her work. Alvy’s botanical passions are out of place in this 22nd century society. Direct engagement with nature is not enthusiastically encouraged. His botanical garden, which to our 21st century eyes pops visually, is seen as a quaint anachronism in this futuristic society. 

Emilia Clarke, Chiwetel and Rosalie Craig appear in a still from The Pod Generation by Sophie Barthes, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Andrij Parekh.

Meanwhile, Rachel is living an ideal corporate, contemporary life and is offered a promotion that only a conventional pregnancy could derail. Thing is that Rachel wants a baby. Fortunately, Pegazus has a solution that has become wildly popular and the demand is so strong that those who can afford the down payment often step to the front of the life. Imagine how far today’s reproductive technologies for artificial fertilization and insemination can be taken as Pegazus has perfected a portable egg-shaped pod — a fully detached artificial womb that ironically is rented by the couple seeking a child. What follows is a visually stunning and sometimes strangely witty and ironic story that introduces plenty of intersecting themes that could keep viewers discussing for hours.

Nature is considered utterly expendable in this 22nd century world so that only the purpose of nurture remains and even then it is carried out in a synthetic, completely detached way. The film suggests concrete details for how distant a parent could actually become should such technology ever become practically realized in real future. Holographic designs replace trees, oxygen bars are a convenient hang-out spot that conceivably could replace a local a Starbucks or coffee shop or watering hole, A.I. caters to every need at home or at work — from productivity monitors with continuously tweaked algorithms to therapy sessions. Cumulatively, the circumstances define the respective struggles of the protagonists and there are shifts in how the principals view these circumstances. 

Initially, Alvy craves having a baby in the way biology intended while Rachel does not want to compromise her career opportunities when a more convenient option exists. But, gradually, both of them gradually shift their perspective. Alvy relaxes his initial resistance and is fascinated by what is happening, as he finds ways of connecting and engaging to the fetus growing inside the pod. The term ‘womb envy’ pops up in the film, with ironic implications. When Rachel sees other women who are expecting and carrying pregnancies in the traditional biological way, there are glimpses suggesting that, indeed, she is experiencing ‘womb envy.’  Perhaps, in the film, the point about gender roles evolving,(or not as much as we anticipate) might be explained by the classic French adage by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse-Karr: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Sophie Barthes, director of The Pod Generation, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Andrij Parekh.

The egg baby becomes a curious plot device here to both confuse the characters and to make them obsess over the situation in respective ways that flex and flux with the narrative arc. Reiterating the earlier point, Rachel struggles to connect with her baby while Alvy cannot bear to be separated from it. The predicament ends up producing some unexpected moments with simultaneously occurring comedic and dramatic tones. The characters also prime the pump for viewers to continue the discussion, once the credits roll at the end of the screening. The film is a hybrid science fiction satire and rom-com story. This also carries over into debates the characters have about the human condition, biology, parenthood and pregnancy. Reference materials from 1974 are looked upon as strange and weird in the way we might look at content from the mid- or late-1800s.

Some might see the film as not advancing much beyond the premise of its great promise. Periodically, the narrative stakes are not fully articulated as they might be and occasional melodramatic moments trip up the beats of the story arc’s momentum. Some might have wanted the film to be sharper and more prominent on it, because there are elements that suggest a radical critique of capitalism and patriarchy. There’s one scene where protesters hold a demonstration in front of the Pegazus offices, calling for the end of corporate influence and greed when it comes to access to parenthood. Indeed, most of the characters are bourgeois, as the characters’ plentiful resources shield them from the discrimination that minorities usually experience. But, this scene leads nowhere, with our main characters not even paying much attention to it as they pass by the street protest. Would exploring the angry, messy sides of this 22nd century world have made The Pod Generation better? Perhaps, but maybe it might also be best to let viewers step into the narrative territory and decide whether or not the world portrayed in the film is appealing enough to satisfy them and to do so satisfactorily while wondering if this still fits in with their own moral and ethic worldviews. 

Technically, the film is superb. It’s primarily shot in pastels, which make for an eerie calm — whether or not it is indoors or outdoors. While it might lack in some areas, The Pod Generation makes up for it with plenty of heart. It is a genuinely funny, smart movie led by a cast who knows exactly what kind of tone they need to set. While this may not make the viewer look forward to an AI-led future, it might inspire them to resolve to make more earnest attempts at engaging more actively with their natural surroundings, as well as connecting with their loved ones in a real-time, not technology-driven basis.

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