Cannes 2024 Review

Megalopolis Is A Beautiful Disaster

Francis Ford Coppola’s ambitious sci-fi epic is both everything we feared it would be and everything we hoped it would be.

Inverse Reviews

Megalopolis is a lot of movie. To be precise, it’s 40 years worth of movie. Francis Ford Coppola first dreamed up the idea for the sci-fi epic in 1977, before seriously starting to develop it in the 1980s. It was, as Coppola described, less of a fully formed script than a series of ideas — a movie comprised of notebooks filled with thoughts and a vague ambition of “a Roman epic set in a contemporary New York.”

And that’s exactly what Megalopolis feels like: a bunch of ideas smashed together into a garish, baffling, dazzling, kind of atrocious, and totally audacious rejection of the cinematic form. It should never have been made. And yet, now that it has, we should be so grateful it exists.

Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel in Megalopolis.

American Zoetrope

Set in an Ancient Rome-inspired version of contemporary America, Megalopolis tells the story of Cesar Catilina (Adam Driver, using the full weight of his charisma), a genius architect who inexplicably has the ability to stop time. Cesar dreams of building a utopian community he calls Megalopolis out of the building material Megalon, an unstable element that no one really knows the full potential of. But Cesar’s idealistic vision of the future puts him at odds with the corrupt Mayor Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito, aloof and Shakespearean), who believes in more practical solutions for the rapidly worsening economic situation of New Rome. (His plan, it turns out, is building a “fun casino.”)

Megalopolis is a feverish vision that was ripped directly from Coppola’s brain and slapped onto the screen.

New Rome, which is basically New York City except Madison Square Garden is the Coliseum and the socialites wear salacious versions of Roman togas and tunics, is very much a city of the haves and have-nots. The rich engage in neon-lit bacchanalian raves, while the poor watch in silent judgment behind chain-link fences. But Cicero’s daughter, Julia (a beatific, but slightly boring Nathalie Emmanuel) has grown tired of the debauchery and finds a new fascination in Cesar when she witnesses him stopping time. The two of them embark on a deeply tangled professional and personal relationship, which sets off a series of devious schemes to tear down Cesar by his envious cousin Clodio (a truly perverse Shia LaBeouf) and Cesar’s former mistress Wow Platinum (a scene-stealing Aubrey Plaza, in peak weirdo mode).

On paper, Megalopolis might sound like a fairly straightforward story — a dizzying mix of Succession meets Shakespearean tragedy meets camp. But there’s no describing just how bewildering watching Megalopolis truly is.

For the first genuinely awful hour of the movie, Megalopolis moves with no rhyme or reason. Each scene feels like an establishing shot of a different movie. Each actor feels like they’re in a completely different film from each other. The editing has the imbalanced, rapid-fire rhythm of an SNL sketch.

The dialogue is borderline indiscernible. Characters talk strictly in platitudes, clichés, or strangely direct statements of intent. It feels bad to say that the dialogue sounds like it was written by AI, but the unnatural, wooden cadence of each spoken line, no matter who of the stacked cast — which also includes Laurence Fishburne, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Talia Shire, and Kathryn Hunter — was speaking, certainly could make a case for that.

Apart from Driver, who plunges into the material with a desperate madness and unhinged physicality (he does a drug-fueled, interpretative dance at one point...), the only actor who really seems to be on Megalopolis’ wavelength is Aubrey Plaza, whose aggressively weird and freakishly sensual persona is a perfect fit for this very peculiar movie. But as the film heads into its oddly lucid second half, it becomes clear that the performers almost don’t matter. Megalopolis is simply a feverish vision that was ripped directly from Coppola’s brain and slapped onto the screen.

The world, Coppola says, will end not with a bang, but with a cynical pop song. And this is his cinematic swan song.

And why shouldn’t it be? Coppola literally poured his own blood, sweat, and tears into the project, selling his winery to fund his passion project himself after he couldn’t find a studio to back it. And you can see every drop on the screen. Every other scene is shot at magic hour, rendering the whole film’s color palette a deep, warm orange color, almost red when the light hits the skies just right. Every visual influence and cinematic reference you can think of is crammed into this film in an almost slapdash manner. Coppola pays homage to silent films with his frequent overlaying of eyes, faces, and buildings, while at one point, the film becomes a hardboiled noir complete with dark, moody lighting, rain, and fog, for no reason other than it looks cool. It’s a film that feels like it’s made by a man at the end of his career, and with nowhere to put his ideas — so he puts them all in one movie, damned if they don’t make sense together.

Aubrey Plaza is one of the standout performances of Megalopolis precisely because she gets exactly what wavelength the movie is on.

American Zoetrope

But Coppola is not subtle about what Megalopolis is about. He equates this debaucherous, corrupt America with the fall of ancient Rome. The Roman bread and circuses are now a Taylor Swift-inspired pop concert (starring Grace VanderWaal as a “Vestal Virgin”), while LaBeouf’s faux revolutionary catchphrases are ripped from real headlines, like “Don’t tread on me.” Ancient Roman-inspired imagery is intercut with gaudy images of contemporary pop stars, past and future coexisting all at once. The world, Coppola says, will end not with a bang, but with a cynical pop song.

Earlier, I said that Megalopolis is a lot of movie, but it doesn’t feel fair to even call it that. It’s less a movie than it is an art installation, an exercise in indulgence and an experiment in self-righteous imagery, but also a bold rejection of what a movie traditionally is. In the strangest moment from a very strange movie, Megalopolis literally leaps off the screen. At my screening at Cannes, a man walked onto the stage with a microphone and started speaking to the screen, and the screen answered back — Driver’s Cesar answering this man’s questions as if he, and by extent, the audience, are part of a press conference. It’s this moment that embodied the peculiar experiment that is Megalopolis: a fourth-wall-breaking gimmick that pulls the audience into the movie, whether they want to be or not. It’s arrogant and overbearing, on Coppola’s part. But you can’t deny that it’s kind of inspired.

Megalopolis premiered May 16 at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. It does not yet have a U.S. distributor.

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