In his 1937 collection of essays, Ends and Means, English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley wrote, “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.” Fast-forward into a new century, and French director Sophie Barthes’ science fiction drama, The POD Generation, echoes Huxley’s sentiment.
The story centres on a New York couple, Rachel (Emilia Clarke), a tech company executive, and her botanist husband, Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who have plans to start a family. When she meets with her senior manager and is asked whether there are plans to have children, Rachel is told that it would be a shame to spoil what has been a great year for her so far. She’s referred to The Womb Center, a company that takes a scientific approach to making pregnancy convenient – artificial wombs, known as “pods”.
The Womb Center has emerged because of the decline in the birthrate, one reason being women are reluctant to have children because it’s inconvenient. The aim is to solve this problem and empower women. They say they want to see mothers fulfilled, able to pursue their dreams, and describe this artificial pregnancy as “the privilege of humanity”.
Rachel decides to go ahead without first discussing it with her husband. Angry and despite wanting a natural pregnancy, he reluctantly agrees to support her decision.
One of The POD Generation‘s supporting characters, Alice (Vinette Robinson) says, “Progress has never made anyone redundant. It’s here to help.” Barthes’ film deliberately introduces us to a supposed progressive near-future, playing to the seduction of technology we allow to intrude upon our lives with its gadgets and novelties. Barthes quickly scratches the surface of her shiny future and tarnishes the vision, in which technology reimagines our relationship with nature, and the transformation of procreation to fully liberate women is disingenuous.
Alvy is positioned as humanity’s conscience – he’s hyper-aware that humans are divorcing themselves from nature. He tells Rachel, “We decided at some point that nature was a commodity, and that’s when everything started to unravel. It’s a divorce from ourselves, in a way, and it makes us emotionally starved.” This existential crisis is positioned as The POD Generation‘s supporting thematic thread, without which both the dominant artificial pregnancy plot and the film’s larger conversation would fall flat.
The Womb Center’s ethos comes across as hostile towards nature. They tell Rachel, Alvy, and the other parents gathered, “… This thing is called technological progress. We’re humans, and we humans have always managed to control nature. No woman is completely free until she has control over her own reproductive system.”
Alvy’s naturalist sentimentality draws attention to the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature that preceded technology. Barthes effectively reminds us of this connection’s emotional and intimate dynamics and that, as humans, we should not forget our place. We are not gods. We are nature’s creation, and we belong to something bigger than what our inflated ego tells us.
The POD Generation exposes the cyclical nature of societies and how this near-future is not exclusively futuristic but thematically resonates with contemporary America and the wider world. In the shadow of the climate crisis, this film is a spiritual reflection of human indifference. While reality appears to be more detrimental, Barthes’ film conveys that we’ve reduced nature to “the other”, whose needs and welfare are less than our own.
Alice tells Rachel and Alvy, “The uterus is a political issue, probably the most important political issue of all time.” Undergoing an artificial pregnancy with her husband, she believes that women no longer need to be a victim of their biology. An underlying commentary in The POD Generation is that child-bearing women have become a liability, which we know patriarchy has enthusiastically weaponised throughout history.
The Womb Centre is described as “the hottest perk” at her job, and with Rachel’s company’s emphasis on retaining the brightest and best women in the workplace, one wonders if this per is about liberating women or prioritising capitalist productivity.
In Barthe’s futuristic vision, pregnancy needs the proverbial “fix”. Instead of focusing on economic and societal structures that promote equality, the role women serve as being more than just mothers or Madonnas is an ongoing conundrum. Equally, only those women with personal wealth, or women like Rachel, who are identified as an asset and have the support of their employers, can access this “privilege of humanity”.
A political dimension to The POD Generation calls to mind an observation Léa Mysius, the director of The Five Devils, shared with me in an interview to publish here on PopMatters tomorrow. “We live in a capitalist existence, so once the dominating class sees the dominated class brings in money, that’s when they start to gain a foothold. Ideally, you’d get to a place where you break that system, and the dominated class takes the creative tools and starts making their own work.”
The POD Generation sets up the premise of freedom, but from the outset, there’s a shadow of control. We’re cogs in a machine, dehumanised if we allow our capitalist existence to do so. If women have been the dominated class, do they achieve emancipation when the dominating class sees their value? The POD Generation doesn’t suggest so. On the contrary, there are women complicit in the charade, and while women apparently are given more control over their pregnancies and bodies in this story, they have less control. The pods are the property of The Womb Centre, a capitalist institution focused on monetising birth mechanically and unnaturally.
Will women ever be free, even if technology controls nature? Who is in control of the technology? Are women fated to be locked in an eternal struggle for freedom and control? We should remember Huxley’s words. While societies are technologically advancing, Barthes offers a cautionary tale about how, spiritually, culturally, and economically we’re efficiently standing still – or moving backwards.
Amidst these big ideas is how Barthes utilises her two lead characters to hook our emotional interest. Each feels differently about technology and nature. This extends to caring for the foetus in the pod and the conflict over whether traditional attachment theory is right when The Womb Centre discourages it.
The POD Generation premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Alfred P. Sloan Award. It has been acquired by Roadside Attractions and Vertical, with a US release planned for summer 2023.