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‘The Pod Generation’ Review; Emilia Clarke & Chiwetel Ejiofor Are Having A Baby In A Thoughtful But Flat Comedy/Drama [Sundance]

“We can’t live in the past!” Rachel (Emilia Clarke) tells her husband Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor).  “Things are evolving!” She should know; she spends her days creating AI companions and coordinating automation (her latest big triumph appears to be a combination of virtual assistant, friend, and mood ring). But Alvy, as she puts it, “studies plants… and plant-like things,” taking horticulture students out to fig trees and saying things like, “The texture is completely different when it’s fresh from the tree.”

So it’s a real opposites-attract situation, the old-school luddite and the literal creator of artificiality, and there are therefore obvious disagreements over her rather unilateral decision to take advantage of her company’s offer to set her up at “The Womb Center” (“It is our hottest perk – we we just want to retain the best and brightest women”). Their business is artificial insemination, taken a couple of steps farther; fertilization occurs under careful scientific observation, and the zygote grows into a baby inside an egg-like pod, which looks like an incubator designed by WALL-E’s creators. The stated advantage is “optimized nutrition in a clean, safe, pure environment, so they can put all their effect into growing.” Less openly noted is that the extradition of the pregnancy process allows women to keep working without interruption.

And this is the set-up for “The Pod Generation,” a Belgian/French/UK co-production from writer and director Sophie Barthes, best known previously for her quirky 2009 sci-fi/comedy “Cold Souls.” Like that film, this is a five-minutes-into-the-future story, in which living has only grown more automated, the verbiage of artificial intelligence has only grown more annoying, and busy business people compensate for the shortcomings of urban living by visiting fresh air bars or “nature pods,” offering quick hits of the great outdoors. Rachel also has an AI therapist, visualized as a giant, focused eyeball (its blinks are a reliably effective bit of comic punctuation). 

The Pod Generation

But those shiny surfaces don’t always tell the whole story. On a tour of a “progressive” potential school for their child (“We also introduce them to Fuzzy Logic,” brags the tour leader), another parent raises a concerning question: is it true that their babies will not have dreams? “It’s a little side effect!” they’re assured. “We’re working on it!” But this information is particularly worrisome for Rachel, because of the strange, surreal dreams she’s been having , with a common theme: they’re all about having a “real” baby.

The pregnancy goes about as expected, with typical – if chronologically displaced – spats over taking turns with the care and feeding. But the more time Alvy spends with the pod, the more he likes it, and Berthes makes great hay out of his  journey from reluctance to full-throated, full-time bonding – and her resultant jealousy. “Everything seems to be revolving around the pod, “ she complains to her therapist, to which he quietly corrects, “The baby.”

Clarke deftly conveys that worrisome contradiction in little glances and flinches; she has a warm, open face, and proves a gifted reactive comedienne (watch the panic in her eyes as he rambles on about our damaging collective divorce from the natural world, just as she’s about to tell him about the baby). As for Ejiofor, who had something of an early American cinema breakthrough by starring in Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda,” it seems not coincidental that he’s called Alvy, a less than common name. This is a profoundly Allen-influenced performance, in a film with a clear debt to his“Sleeper” (particularly in a key moment of clumsily executed crime, complete with jazz standard scoring.

Barthes’ screenplay is clean; for the most part, it’s brainy but not didactic, and thoughtful but not dull. There are flashes of physical comedy, well-placed and executed, and as with “Cold Souls,”  we gets a fair amount of mileage out of incongruent corporate-speak and feel-good nonsense. The pinpoint accuracy of current Silicon Valley verbiage is striking, particularly when the dreaming issue is addressed with “dream pods” of “Child-friendly content.” 

So Barthes has a good ear for board-room double-seat, and a keen eye for sleek imagery and aesthetics. What she does not have, in “The Pod Generation,” is much of a story to tell, or much of anything to say the can’t be inferred from its opening moments. And its ending, which briefly thrilling, also seems to arrive simply because we’re nearing the two-hour mark. None of this is meant to diminish the fine work of the cast and even the writer/director; this is a film full of compelling ideas, which is much more than most filmmakers of her generation attempt. Once she learns to tie those ideas together into a fresh or inspiring narrative, that’ll really be something. [B-]

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