Sundance 2023

The Pod Generation review – Black Mirror byproduct births only frustration

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Emilia Clarke co-star in a stunted and overtly twee social sci-fi that could have used way more gestation time

The last time a film had Chiwetel Ejiofor so gravely concerned about a pregnancy was Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 Children of Men, a dystopian thriller that places infertility as the root of human extinction. In Sophie Barthes’ latest, The Pod Generation, the British actor is once again greatly invested in a pregnancy that raises moral and philosophical questions about the future of society.

This time, however, instead of playing the leader of an underground organisation, Ejiofor is Alvy, one of the few remaining botanists in a near-future world where people pay to connect to a nebulising mask plugged into a box of greenery that pumps filtered air through their congested lungs. A fierce advocate for the natural world (“Nature is a commodity… it makes us emotionally starved,” he declares), Alvy is taken by surprise when his wife, Rachel (Emilia Clarke), suggests they gestate a baby through a “pod,” an egg-shaped device that works as an outer-body womb.

See, Rachel is a successful tech company executive who (rightly) fears a pregnancy could derail her skyrocketing career. The pod, then, offers a nifty solution: a gestation that demands nothing of a woman’s body and that splits the responsibility – and toll – equally between two parents. Alas, such a high promise comes with unavoidable turmoil, and Alvy and Rachel need to grasp the practical and ethical quandaries of it all.

Sophie Barthes’ third feature is the unfortunate byproduct of the Black Mirror-ization of cinema, one of the many clunky mid-budget sci-fi films to bank on the narrative beats and aesthetics of Charlie Brooker’s hit show. Neutral tones and classic knitwear is juxtaposed against holograms and sharp surfaces to create the neatly packaged futuristic look of titles like 2019's Vivarium and 2021's Dual. But without any meaty reflections to offer, the trimmed visuals come across as an extended IKEA commercial.

Instead of feeding off soft sci-fi tropes to dwell on how technology blurs traditional pathways to parenthood and long-established gendered roles, The Pod Generation is all too willing to lean on the frugality of the twee. Out with layered metaphors and proper character development, in with a sobbing Ejiofor blaming hormones for his newly acquired bouts of crying while comically snuggling the pastel-coloured pod.

Patience, it turns out, is just as scarce a commodity to viewers as fresh food is to the inhabitants of this futuristic New York. By the time Barthes’ stunted sociological exercise at last begins to prod at the more interesting aspects of this technological gestation, lenience is far gone, leaving in its place a bitter taste of frustration.

The Pod Generation was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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