Winner of the 2023 Sloan Feature Film Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Sophie Barthes’s THE POD GENERATION stars Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor as a couple grappling with the implications of having a baby born out of an artificial pod. It was awarded the Sloan Prize “for its bold, visually-arresting depiction of a brave new parenthood in which A.I. and artificial wombs provide technological benefits at the expense of our relationship to nature and to our own humanity, and for a woman artist’s exploration of shifting gender roles dissociated from biology." We spoke with Barthes during the Sundance Film Festival about the film’s depiction of futuristic technology, the moral and social issues she’s trying to highlight, and the tone of THE POD GENERATION.
[Please note: This interview contains some spoilers.]
Science & Film: What research went into the production design and biology depicted in THE POD GENERATION?
Sophie Barthes: I’m a visual person so I wanted to create a world that is very relatable, that could be almost tomorrow. It is so seductive that you want to be part of it—like when you enter an Apple store and want to touch everything, it’s almost a fetish. The idea was to conceive a technology that we all want to have, but the technology is enslaving us. It’s an extension of what I feel I’m living every day; I’m obsessed with my phone, I see everyone touching their phones constantly. This was to be applied to the artificial womb, the artificial intelligence, the nature pods—everything that’s in the film had to be desirable otherwise there could be no suspension of disbelief.
For the style I wanted to do feminist science fiction where everything is round. A lot was inspired by the architect Zaha Hadid who always uses round and organic shapes, which is not something we see in male-dominated architecture which is usually angular. I was interested in doing a retro, vintage sci-fi where it’s an era of confusion; an artificial intelligence is an eye, and the eye blinks and has sounds that seem moist, so it’s like, why is this eye almost organic when it’s a digital device? I think in the future it’s going to be hard for us to know what is organic and what is fully manufactured digitally, and then we’re going to give more of ourselves to that technology because it resembles us. It’s confusing and that’s what I love to explore. As an audience we should feel like the characters—immersed in that world and a little confused by it.
I have to mention the production designer, Clement Price-Thomas, who is an aesthete. I was briefing him on all the pastel colors I wanted, references to female painters like Georgia O’Keefe and Marie Laurencin, and he ran with it. I think he had a lot of fun creating that world.
S&F: You have some great sequences of the biology of what is happening, what research did you do into how this womb technology could actually work?
SB: I spoke to an incredible botanist named Ari Novy who is a bit of an inspiration for [the character of] Alvy. I met him at a conference in New York about the future, and he was talking about our relationship to nature. He mentioned that he took some of his students on a field trip to Italy and they were at a fig tree and none of them would try the fig from the tree because they thought it was toxic, because it came from nature, and they were used to Whole Foods fruits. It was a huge inspiration for me to think about a character who is a utopian and is caught between a world he loves and cherishes and where our connection to nature feels natural, and a world of the future where actually connecting to nature requires an effort and is not something natural anymore. In the film, Alvy is one of the last utopians. He still has a strong connection to nature and wants to transmit that to his students.
I also did a lot of interviews with people in artificial intelligence and went to a lot of conferences, and I’m reading a lot. I’m very puzzled by it and trying to understand the purpose of this thing and what it’s going to do to our lives. Sometimes I joke that it’s not artificial intelligence but artificial idiocy because we’re creating it and it’s doing things to us that are making us dependent on it. One of the examples is GPS; we have become so dependent that we have issues in our brain related to orientation. So, there are things we’re willing to give to technology for convenience, but we don’t really measure the consequences. Our brains have an incredible mailability and they’re changing—we know that if you’re on social media a lot it increases your dopamine level which is a form of addiction. I don’t have the answers to any of this, but it’s interesting to ask the questions in a movie so people can at least start to think about what relationship we want with this technology that is thrown at us every day.
S&F: I’m reminded of the scene in the film where they’re introducing the cognitive assistants and someone asks, will these make us redundant?
SB: That’s the paradox: we’re making all these things to make us useless! You saw last week the debate about ChatGPT and professors were horrified. I think the thing of the future will be little labels that say “made by human,” and that will have value. But there is something very scary when you learn about machine learning and A.I. It is going to be able to write books, make movies, write symphonies, so what are we going to do? We’re going to just be absorbing content. That’s what the film is about: a society that is creating content even for babies in utero because parents are worried that babies are going to be bored. A society that is so addicted to content because of fear of the internal void is on a very scary path. Creativity and internal life come from boredom; you have to be bored to create. If you don’t have that space, then the machines are going to create for us.
In the film there is the little sequence in the school where machines are making art and the kids are just grading it…we’re going in that direction sadly. I need as a filmmaker to laugh about the questions that are a bit scary.
S&F: Yes, in what ways was humor important you in the film?
SB: I am attracted to that tone of satire, comedy, almost a little bit slapstick but also melancholy, dreamlike, poetic things because I feel life is both. One day, we feel elated and joyful, but we constantly feel the anxiety and sadness in life. In the film, I’m trying to do both, asking an audience to laugh but also to ask themselves questions that could be a little bit upsetting. My first film was also navigating this tone. It would be easier to have one tone and to stay there, but I’m always attracted to having both.
Rosalie Craig, Sophie Barthes, Emilia Clarke at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. © 2023 Sundance Institute | photo by Jen Fairchild.
S&F: Are these themes ones you hope to continue exploring in your work?
SB: Yes, the more you research artificial intelligence the more you see opportunities for stories because there is so much room for absurd comedies or even darker themes when you see what’s coming. It’s going to change us completely in the next 20 years. I think we’re going to become another sort of species because we’re enhanced in a way. With our phones we already have an alter-ego that is holding our memories, that is sending us memories. There are so many opportunities for storytelling and incredible ideas to come. I’m not just someone who rejects technology, I think there are incredible things in technology that can help us. We should just be aware and decide what relationship we want to those things because we have a tendency to be extreme as a species, we’re addicted to things.
S&F: I actually didn’t come away from your film thinking the pod was necessarily the evil. It didn’t seem that bad! It gave Alvy an experience that he wouldn’t have otherwise had. I appreciated how you left that sort of unresolved.
SB: That’s the complexity of technology. Our capacity to create and invent is amazing. Alvy’s character, because he’s so connected to nature, he doesn’t look at the technology he looks at the possibility and sees a child in the pod. Rachel is a little stuck because she can only see the technology and she can’t see the child in it. It’s not the technology per se that’s an issue, it’s regulating and educating people how to use it, so we keep the integrity of our humanity. How do we navigate being a species with freedom and agency with all these tools? They should remain tools, they shouldn’t be things controlling us. I think that’s where the line is.
If you have artificial intelligence therapy, through machine learning that therapist would know more than any psychoanalytic specialist, but would that be better or would that be detrimental because you need a human being with all their flaws to look at another human being’s soul? I don’t really know, but I’m curious to put it out there. In the film it’s done in a satirical way. The therapy doesn’t work for Alvy because he doesn’t believe in it. It works for Rachel because she believes the thing can help her. I guess it’s what we bring to the technology as individuals.
S&F: And to the therapy [laughs].
SB: Yeah, and to therapy! Exactly [laughs].