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Sundance 2023 Review: The Pod Generation – “A worthy watch”

Emilia Clarke, Chiwetel Ejiofor 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.

Imagine a future, where instead of becoming pregnant with a child, there was an opportunity for your baby to be conceived and then hosted in an egg-like pod for the duration of its development.  No weight gain, no stretch marks, no swollen ankles.  Enjoy that glass of wine and soft, unpasteurized cheese, or sushi with friends while you connect with your unborn child through the app.  Because, yes there is an app for that too.  Would you do it? Writer-director Sophie Barthes explores this idea and more in sci-fi satire The Pod Generation.

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As Rachel (Emilia Clarke) starts her day, she is greeted by the friendly AI voice of Elena who informs her about her gut health, helps her choose her work outfit, and 3-D prints her food.  She works for a tech company, a rising talent, whose productivity is constantly monitored.  Conversely, her husband Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a botanist, nature lover, and teacher, is met by a much different version of Elena.  “I guess today is a t-shirt, Alvy?” she asks inquiring about his clothing as she burns his toast.  In the future, it seems even AI is judgemental.

When Rachel gets a promotion, she is asked about her intentions to start a family.  The company wants to ‘retain the best and brightest women’ she is informed.  Work will even help with a downpayment for the Womb Centre, a facility that will help you have a child without ever having to stop working and avoid those pesky pregnancy side effects.  There’s a long wait list, but when a spot opens up, Rachel and Alvy take the leap, despite his reservations about relying on tech for the new life they’re creating.  They watch their child be conceived under the microscope.  “Congratulations!  You have a zygote!” they are told, and so begins the journey with their pod.  It’s like the new version of a Tamagotchi, demanding to be fed, and cared for via the app.  Only in this new version, their baby gestates inside.

The Pod Generation benefits from some incredible world-building by Sophie Barthes.  It’s not just the Womb Centre itself, this futuristic world is full of other pods – nature pods offer some space for immersive meditation and relaxation, people breathe from pods containing plants for their breath of fresh air.  As Rachel says to Alvy, why would they ever leave the city? Why go to real nature when they have everything they need right then and there?  And yet the future Barthes creates is still ever rife with talk surrounding reproductive rights (“The uterus is a political issue,” says friend Alice), gender roles, pressure on women to become mothers, and perceived masculinity.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Clarke and Ejiofor play admirably together in this world, a couple with opposing opinions on technology and nature, our gateway into both ends of this spectrum of ideals.  They both do excellent work as their characters learn to embrace parts of each other’s belief systems.  And let’s be honest, seeing the former Mother of Dragons carry around a giant egg containing her child is somewhat symbolically humorous.  No dragons birthed here though.

The Alfred P. Sloan Prize winner this year (awarded to an outstanding feature whose theme is science or technology), The Pod Generation leans into its satirical view of this futuristic world wholeheartedly, though could have delved deeper into its central themes.  Instead of becoming continually thought-provoking, it eventually starts to drag in the final act, preventing any sort of real emotional ties.  However, The Pod Generation is still a worthy watch, with enough great, creative ideas and humour to push it through to the credits.

The Pod Generation left me with some lingering philosophical questions to contemplate about technology and its uses and place in the world.  As science continues to progress, what truly is the role of nature in our lives, and what of our connection to it?  What happens if humans think they can do better than millions of years of evolution? Are we helping Mother Nature along or pushing her aside? As one character notes in the film, unironically, “Progress has never made anyone redundant.”

The Pod Generation premiered at Sundance January 19, 2023 and continues in person screenings through to January 28th.

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