“The Pod Generation” is one of those sci-fi films set in a future that looks just teasingly enough like our own world to heighten the differences. Somewhere near the end of the 21st century, Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wake up each morning in a sprawling high-rise apartment where the window shades glide up with the light, a laser makes your toast, and Siri doesn’t just help you — she wants to have a conversation. Folio, the company where Rachel works, creates and markets AI assistants (the one they’re about to introduce looks like a mounted eyeball), and everyone there is a notch more screen-centric than we are. But you can see that’s where we’re heading.
All of this is presented as “progress” that’s also a sly satire of progress. But then Rachel gets called into the office of a senior executive who informs her, with great enthusiasm, that she’s getting a promotion. All good, right? Except that the executive, after looking askance at the fact that Rachel’s husband is a self-employed botanist, asks her if she’s planning to start a family. The implication is that she should not be; it will interfere with her work. This gives us a sinister pause, since the movement in our own society has been, more and more, to regard that kind of thinking as discriminatory. But according to “The Pod Generation,” this, for all the progress that’s been made in our office policies, is where the future is headed: to a place where women who work (as one character puts it) “are reluctant to have children, because it’s not made convenient for them.”
The executive then informs Rachel that the company can land her a coveted spot at the Womb Center, a place that puts a whole new spin on pregnancy. It seems that technology has reached a point where it has liberated women from the need to carry their babies around inside them. At the Womb Center, fertilization happens externally…and so does pregnancy! Instead of living in the mother’s belly, the fetus comes to term in a pod that looks like a shiny white plastic egg about a foot-and-a-half tall. There’s a cap on top with small holes that make it look like some funky all-in-one music-speaker system. In the pod, the fetus gets fed and gets to experience sounds, smells, and screens (yes, screens) that you can program to help it grow.
Rachel had already put herself on a wait list to get into the Womb Center. The Pegazus corporation, of which Folio is a division, has perks for the elite and nudges that process along. For a while, though, Rachel and Alvy can’t agree on how to go forward. Alvy, a plant whisperer who’s also a 20th-century nostalgist, is not on board with all the ways the natural world is being replaced by a synthetic version of itself. He’s against having a baby at the Womb Center, and can’t believe Rachel would have signed up for it without consulting him. The argument is ultimately resolved — he loves her and wants to support her; they go forward with having a pod baby. But one of the many things “The Pod Generation” taps into is how the combined forces of technology and corporate power now seem almost designed to divide people off from each other.
Rachel and Alvy get pregnant (they watch the sperm penetrate the egg on a large phosphorescent video screen that makes it look like a music video), and they’re soon presented with their pod: pregnancy itself turned into a consumer product. “The Pod Generation,” written and directed by Sophie Barthes (“Madame Bovary”), has a surface tone that stays light and funny, buoyed by its future-as-Martha-Stewart-domestic-gizmo pastel production design. There’s no doubt that the movie is a satire, but it’s never just a satire. It has a diabolical undercurrent. It’s like Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” crossed with “Rosemary’s Baby.”
The literal-minded may experience “The Pod Generation” as, simply, an absurdist comedy of dehumanization, where a woman having a baby outside her body is treated as the ultimate future-shock “advance.” But the movie is actually more knowing and targeted than that. The possibilities of technology are guiding the fate of Rachel and Alvy’s baby; so is the company she works for. These forces have taken control of the baby and, in a real sense, have taken it away from her. So let’s be clear about what Sophie Barthes is satirizing. She has made an entertaining but darkly resonant movie that takes off from how the medical establishment has increasingly taken control of the process of childbirth, and of how the society as a whole is now trying to breed detachment into us from the ground up.
At first, the sight of Rachel and Alvy toting their plastic pod around looks like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. But the way Barthes stages the movie, with a peppy relatability, the more we get used to the situation the more real it becomes. The two actors play it with lived-in neurotic passion, as Clarke, with her crooked grin, makes the ambitious Rachel a woman at odds with herself (she keeps having dreams about actually being pregnant), and Ejiofor, bearded and saturnine, turns Alvy into a discombobulated humanist. There are a couple of terrific scenes with Rachel’s AI therapist, a giant flowery eyeball who dismisses Rachel’s dreams as relics of a dead age. And there’s a droll running motif of Alvy toting the pod around in a carrying pouch, a tweak of the Babybjörn and other products that seem designed to turn daddies into compliant flower children.
“The Pod Generation” goes on a shade longer than it should. That’s because its tone is a bit too unvarying. Given the ominous notes the film strikes, especially in the smiling performance of Rosalie Craig as the Womb Center liaison who lets Rachel know, in a dozen ways, that her baby is no longer really hers, the movie should, perhaps, have turned into more of a thriller. Yet it’s full of irresistible touches, like Jean-Marc Barr as the bald cultish Pegazus founder who speaks in self-actualized corporate cult epigrams. The film also takes witty swipes at everything from the privatization of education to the severing of food from nature. Barthes has made a cautionary tale that is not only oodles more relevant than “Don’t Worry Darling,” but one that can speak to audiences with a casual audacity that outdoes what David Cronenberg tried to bring off in “Crimes of the Future.” His movie was a swank metaphorical concoction about flesh in revolt. “The Pod Generation” is very much about our flesh, and the forces that are only too happy to take it away from us.