Emilia Clarke Carries The Pod Generation‘s Parenting Sci-Fi

Movies Reviews Emilia Clarke
Emilia Clarke Carries The Pod Generation‘s Parenting Sci-Fi

The movies have dashed the hopes of many a TV actor with big screen aspirations, and a recent unacceptable casualty among their number is Emilia Clarke. Somehow, someway, Clarke–one of the centermost cogs in HBO’s Game of Thrones–has struggled to find film roles befitting of her diverse talents. Whether thoughtlessly cast as femme fatales (Solo: A Star Wars Story), take-no-shit action heroes (Terminator Genisys), or walking disasters (Last Christmas), Clarke has had few opportunities to play whole people in movies, and even fewer than that to unlock her wildly underused anxious dork energy. Sophie Barthes’ The Pod Generation attempts to right both of these wrongs, and trips up only by overthinking itself.

The Pod Generation has too much on its mind, introducing one idea after another as worldbuilding details to buttress its main concerns about women’s bodily autonomy. As fumbles go, Barthes straining her story’s seams isn’t a game-ender; when making art that imagines the future by mulling over the present, it’s worse by far not to think enough. It’s not the filmmaker’s fault that a tech doofus has rebranded Twitter as “X” or that the NFT market sank and took every Bored Ape variant with it. But these very stupid developments nonetheless date The Pod Generation on its arrival in theaters.

These developments don’t detract much from the film, because Barthes is a good filmmaker and the space she’s working in retains just the right amount of elasticity between surprise and predictability. It’s obvious, for one thing, that the protagonists, Rachel (Clarke) and her husband Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor), will swap perspectives about halfway through The Pod Generation, allowing Barthes’ script to stretch out to fully consider its themes. Rachel works in the fast-paced and nebulously shaped tech world; Alvy is a botanist, beating back against the tide of technocracy. Guess the breadwinner!

Rachel’s simultaneous positions as higher earner and birthing person means a decision about when and whether to have kids will potentially place her career on hold and her body in repair mode. Fortunately, she lives in tomorrow-land, so there’s a gadget for that. Pegazus, another tech world entity, has developed detachable artificial wombs – pods – that let women off their biological clock and allow men to partake in pregnancy to an extent never before possible. Alvy doesn’t like it. Too bad for Alvy: Rachel pulls an Ozymandias and simply goes for it, touring the exclusive Womb Center, where the magic/science happens, and puts down a deposit. The combination of her giddy power play and his unconditional affection for her means they’re new expecting parents.

The Pod Generation is washed in a soft neutral palette, as if in the future, people have chosen to bowdlerize aesthetics as a way of preempting offense. Little about the film’s appearance sticks out outside of a couple of key settings, like Rachel and Alvy’s apartment, or Rachel’s therapist’s office, essentially a yoga studio where the doctor isn’t a doctor, but a lidless eye embedded in the wall and wreathed in flowers and greens. That Barthes discharges so much creative force conceptualizing the nature pods, where people in metropolitan limbo go to nap in an isolated space designed to mimic a woodland bath, is telling of her personal priorities. This is not a director with much fondness for Silicon Valley and its way of improving established technology by making it worse. 

Accepting the look of The Pod Generation is important for accepting the basic conceit; the people of Barthes’ future have rejected the messiness of in utero pregnancy and childbirth, and all other traits of the species that might invite displeasure. They’ve even shut down the Department of Education, another echo of present-day circumstances. Alvy rebels against his fellow man’s embrace of anti-reason any way he can, but mostly by teaching his students about flora. In time, though, he warms to the pod, to the baby inside, and to the notion of fatherhood, while Rachel shrinks from all of it, her face straining to feign excitement like a shirt stretched too tight over the chest. It’s a look she wears often, and one Ejiofor matches in wide-eyed, bemused stares, his gaze flitting about like he’s watching a tennis match when he’s really listening to robots rebuff consciousness.

“Progress has never made anyone redundant,” says Rachel’s coworker, Alice (Vinette Robinson). “It’s here to help.” She’s reassuring a junior employee at their firm of her job’s security in light of the new AI assistant they’re rolling out – another fake eyeball, this time mounted on a desk-friendly stand. The line practically begs the question, a clear setup for the film’s skepticism of Alice’s premise. But The Pod Generation wisely avoids preaching. Barthes isn’t anti-tech, exactly. At best, she’s anti-too-much-tech, but what she critiques most harshly in her writing is tech’s deification, the idea that tech is the solution to all life’s woes. Linda (Rosalie Craig), the Womb Center’s Mayor McCheese, personifies the attitude with tight smiles and cold-edged admonishments about terms and services, and what’s best for the baby sealed up in the silicone egg Rachel and Alvy have come to love: if you don’t like it, whatever, shut up, you will like it. The couple doesn’t have much of a choice, a bleak irony given that choice is exactly what the pod is meant to facilitate. 

Off in the plot’s margins, questions are raised about who gets to make that choice in terms of access, because pod babies don’t come cheap (though girls apparently come cheapest), and how the world outside the Womb Center might react to uterine obsolescence; a shot near the end shows a protest outside the building’s lobby, furious women waving signs about their wombs, a provocative thought that also feels rushed, as if it occurred to Barthes only in the final draft that one feminist body or another would consider the pods a form of reproductive apostasy. 

Like many of the bright suggestions The Pod Generation offers, it would have been better left trimmed from the story, not because the outcomes and repercussions of the tech shouldn’t be explored but because there isn’t room to explore them all in under two hours. There’s room for the pod, though, and Rachel and Alvy, and Ejiofor, and most of all Clarke’s extraordinary capacity for tonal shifts. One moment, she’s walking face-first into a glass door with the pod strapped to her stomach, a classic expecting parent blooper; the next she’s looking at her reflection as she cradles her bare pregnant belly, a moment of intimate bliss and a dream outside of Rachel’s reach. The pod, ultimately, isn’t about her. It’s about the Womb Center advancing its agenda. But The Pod Generation is absolutely about Clarke.

Director: Sophie Barthes
Writer: Sophie Barthes
Starring: Emilia Clarke, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rosalie Craig, Vinette Robinson, Aslin Farrell
Release Date: August 11, 2023

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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