Megalopolis Is Even Wilder Than You Might’ve Heard

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A little more than an hour into the first screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s hotly-anticipated Megalopolis at the 77th Annual Cannes Film Festival, a production crew member suddenly crosses the auditorium stage with a microphone and flashlight in hand. He halts at stage right, turns his back towards the audience, and speaks into the microphone as if addressing Adam Driver, who appears on screen, looking into the lens. The stage hand asks a question, which Driver’s character Cesar Catilina answers, effectively replicating a press conference like the ones this very festival is known for. When the scene ends mere seconds later and the stagehand promptly exits, there are gasps and murmurs of confused awe from members of the audience—or at least, the ones who haven’t already walked out of Coppola’s harebrained sci-fi fantasy epic.

Megalopolis is, if you can believe it, even more bizarre than you have been led to expect so far. Even before the reveal of its avant-garde visuals in the trailer released earlier this week, the film’s notoriously troubled production— beginning when Coppola first started working on an initial version of the film in the 1980s, which was scrapped and re-envisioned in each subsequent decade until finally shooting in 2022— made its sheer existence the stuff of myth long before a single frame was shown. (The film’s origin story only gets messier with recent reports of inappropriate conduct from Coppola on set). Turbulent productions are central to Coppola’s career lore, from warring with studio heads throughout the making The Godfather to the famously plagued production of Apocalypse Now, an experience he spoke candidly about when the film premiered at Cannes in 1979, where it won the Palme d’Or. But where his past conflicts and creative indomitability gave way to some of the most devoutly worshiped films in the history of cinema, it is impossible to say Megalopolis’s ends comparably justify its arduous means.

The film takes place in a dystopian facsimile of futuristic New York blended with ancient Rome—called, what else, New Rome—in an alternate 21st century, with a plot inspired by the Catiline conspiracy of 63 BC. Driver’s idealistic architect and technologist Catilina (endowed with a Caesar cut worthy of George Clooney, if not Julius) aims to rebuild the decaying city as a sustainable tech-driven utopia, at the behest of traditionalist Mayor Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito). The cast also includes Nathalie Emmanuel as Cicero’s daughter and Catilina’s love interest, Jon Voight as aristocrat Hamilton Crassus, and Aubrey Plaza as a power-hungry television personality named Wow Platinum. Shia LaBeouf, who will be on trial for sexual battery and assault later this year, plays a prominent role as Catilina’s villainous cousin. Despite Catilina’s extensive philosophizing in the film, his vision for the utopia of Megalopolis is rather vague, except that it will be constructed using a mycelium-like material called megalon, its residents will engage in rich ideological discourse, and they will each have their own private garden (no mention of universal healthcare, sorry).

Viewers who don’t get to experience the 30-second live performance element of Megalopolis are still in for 138 plentiful minutes of theatrics that will inspire both amusement and exhaustion, including loopy plotting that tangles itself in convoluted knots, overwrought dialogue as stuffed as Bartlett’s with lines from Emerson and Aurelius, garish CGI-driven visuals that feel straight out of 2009, and more than one montage about human civilization that rivals the manic derangement of the infamous end sequence of Babylon. The tone oscillates wildly, but feels more coherent the more conspicuously it leans into camp; Megalopolis will play much better to lovers of Riverdale than fans of The Godfather.

The film is not without moments where its goofiness feels intentional, or at least knowing. Early in the film, Plaza, whose performance most successfully does this, criticizes Catilina: “You’re anal as hell, Cesar,” she says as she kneels to the floor between his legs, prepared to fellate him, “and I’m oral as hell.” When moments like these to coincide with Driver delivering full Shakespearean monologues, it’s impossible not to laugh at least a little bit.

In another press conference, during his 1979 visit to Cannes with Apocalypse Now, Coppola waxed poetic about the transportive power of art; the delivery and content of his speech now seem to foreshadow Driver’s performance as Catilina. “Perhaps what the film cries for the most is [for us] to be governed by intelligence, creativity, and friendliness,” he says emphatically, “so that we can walk the tightrope between primitive man which is in us, and the godly man.” This theme, also central to Megalopolis, offers connective tissue between it and the rest of his oeuvre.

Through Catilina’s musings, the film insistently argues for a harmonious world in which all people and viewpoints are honored, so long as they are discussed and debated. Utopia, he explains, seeks not to find solutions, but to raise questions. “When we ask questions and there is dialogue,” Catilina muses, in response to the stage hand’s inquiry, “that is a utopia.” If that is Coppola’s idea of a perfect world, then Megalopolis—in its endlessly confounding choices—may just be exactly what he intended.

Originally Appeared on GQ