Sundance 2023 Review: THE POD GENERATION, Provocative Sci-Fi Dystopia
Set in a near-future, cozy dystopia, the latest film by writer-director Sophia Barthes (Cold Souls) nimbly and wryly explores our present-day addiction to technology and its natural, logical extension into corporate-controlled authoritarianism, where seemingly neutral AI-driven tech guides every action, reaction, and choice.
Every single aspect of everyday life, from waking up in the morning to what you drink or eat, often with a too-cheery Siri- or Alexa-like voice nudging every choice in a presumed correct direction, has been predetermined by AI algorithms programmed to maximize a specific definition of efficient living (as determined by offsite corporate overloads).
Over the course of its nearly two-hour running time, The Pod Generation slowly reveals its secrets. It's an antiseptic, well-ordered, corporate-run society, where personal choice, especially personal choice that deviates from profit-driven, corporate policy, is far more illusory than it is real.
Just as clearly, the characters in Barthes’ world are, if not entirely happy by contemporary standards, then content to accept limitations on their personal and professional behavior in exchange for material comfort, good health, and, presumably, longevity. The ideas are no doubt influenced or inspired by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Woody Allen’s Sleeper, and Norman Jewison’s Rollerball, among other works of 20th-century dystopian fiction.
When Barthes’ central characters, Rachel (Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones), a high-level executive at Pegazus, a tech-everything company inspired by Apple, Google, and Facebook (among others), and Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave), her neo-Luddite husband/botanist, decide to take their marriage to the next level and expand their family, they have two choices, natural childbirth or the relatively new “pod” childbirth, where the Womb Center, a fully owned and operated subsidiary of Pegazus, offers essentially a hands-free pregnancy. They donate genetic material (ovum, sperm) and the technology handles the rest, including the nine-month-long gestation of their future child.
Barthes sets up a relatively basic, borderline reductive conflict between Rachel and Alvy, and their respective pro- and anti-tech worldviews. For Rachel, avoiding the physical complications of pregnancy means she can avoid any productivity slowdowns at work and continue her career path upwards. For Alvy, a pod birth means relinquishing our connections to nature and accepting intrusive tech into their private lives. It doesn’t help that Rachel, suspecting Alvy’s disapproval, makes the decision to go the pod-birth route without his knowledge, further exacerbating the tensions in their relationship.
Barthes, however, doesn’t simply let their conflict play out along predictable lines, instead allowing Rachel and Alvy’s relationship with the pod pregnancy and the impending birth to shift and change. Nature, Barthes seems to argue, wills out. Or, rather, the maternal instincts that give an increasingly troubled Rachel dreams of pre-tech pregnancy, and the paternal ones that allow a skeptical Alvy to gradually see the positives in the pod-tech alternative to childbirth.
Surface-deep, the dystopian world Barthes creates for viewers seems like one most audience members on the other side of the screen would want to join. Almost immediately, however, it’s obvious that we shouldn’t want to see that world come to fruition, only visit in a fictional setting. Barthes drops the occasional illuminating line about the world beyond Rachel and their immediate experiences, a world where the government has retreated from providing public services, including education, and the have-nots remain offscreen, likely walled off or otherwise removed from the view of the haves.
Barthes, though, prefers to leave the contours and parameters of that world intentionally vague or ambiguous, keeping The Pod Generation’s focus primarily on Rache and Alvy and their collective journey into parenthood. Anchored by grounded, irony-free performances from Clarke, Ejiofor, and a solid supporting cast, The Pod Generation asks more questions than it answers, but it certainly asks the right ones about the future of our problematic relationship with tech.
The Pod Generation premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pod Generation
- Sophie Barthes
- Sophie Barthes
- Emilia Clarke
- Chiwetel Ejiofor
- Rosalie Craig