Megalopolis Review

Reviewed on May 16th at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival – Competition. 138 Mins

Cast: Adam Driver, Giancarlo Esposito, Nathalie Emmanuel, Aubrey Plaza, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Voight, Laurence Fishburne, Talia Shire, Jason Schwartzman

Genre: Epic, Sci-fi Epic, Tragedy, Drama, Sci-fi

Director: Francis Ford Coppola


Francis Ford Coppola is widely recognized as one of the greatest film directors of all time, largely due to his seminal contributions to the 1970s New American Cinema movement. His latest project, the long-awaited and entirely self-funded “Megalopolis,” unfortunately, falls short, burdened by outdated ideas and an overall sense of irrelevance. This ambitious venture is the riskiest of Coppola’s career—a notable feat given his history of bold innovation with classics like “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and notable financial failures such as “One From the Heart” (1981). “Megalopolis” illustrates the pitfalls that even the greatest auteurs can face when their creative instincts go unchecked, serving as a stark reminder of the importance of critical self-editing.

Set in the twilight days of the opulent city New Rome, the story follows newly elected Mayor Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito) as he grapples with the city’s financial instability. Opposing him is Caesar Catalina (Adam Driver), an architect and the head of the Design Authority division, who wields the ability to stop time. Caesar has also developed a revolutionary metal called Megalon, which he intends to use to rejuvenate the city’s infrastructure, despite Cicero’s objections. Meanwhile, Caesar is entangled in an affair with Wow Platinum (Aubrey Plaza), a notorious stunt journalist with aspirations of power. Wow marries Hamilton Crassus III (Jon Voight), the city’s wealthiest man and Caesar’s uncle, to further her ambitions. Hamilton’s grandson, Clodio (Shia LaBeouf), covets this empire and is willing to go to any lengths to eliminate his cousin Caesar and seize control for himself.

As we navigate the treacherous corridors of New Rome’s upper echelons, it’s hard to find anyone who is either likable or particularly intriguing. The plot, already tenuously held together, disintegrates into a patchwork of incoherent absurdity. Given the highly publicized budget financed by Coppola himself, it’s astonishing how cheap everything still appears, with a murky green screen evoking memories of some over-budgeted 1990s film that failed in its attempt to look futuristic. The narrative ostensibly centers on the decline of an empire, accelerated by the relentless power struggle among three elitist factions vying for dominance. Yet, on a deeper level, it serves as a commentary on human arrogance. Much like the power-hungry elites of New Rome, Coppola seems to have overreached, aiming for cinematic grandeur but ultimately faltering.

The protagonist of the narrative is Caesar Catalina, played by Adam Driver. Catalina is the inventor of a revolutionary new element called Megalon, which is an indestructible material. As the head of the Designing Authority agency, he intends to use Megalon to rebuild the city of Megalopolis. However, he faces opposition from Esposito’s character, the Mayor, who has a different vision for the same area. The Mayor plans to develop a ‘fun’ casino named City Fair. Both characters’ ambitions come at the cost of the residents, whose homes have been demolished, leaving the community dissatisfied with either option. The premise of the story is reminiscent of the kind of grandiose and out-of-touch ideas Ayn Rand might have if she attempted to reimagine Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and proclaim it the greatest work of literature ever created.

Driver and Esposito both handle their roles with relative ease, bringing a level of competence to their performances. Laurence Fishburne, with his smooth and resonant voice, adds a layer of gravitas to his role as Caesar’s right-hand man, lending some much-needed structure to the narrative. However, Coppola continues to demonstrate a significant weakness in crafting roles for young women and in directing the actresses who portray them. This flaw is particularly evident in the character played by Nathalie Emmanuel. Despite her wide-eyed charm, Emmanuel’s character comes across as a lifeless ingenue, wandering through scenes seemingly infatuated with Caesar. Her delivery of Coppola’s excessively pretentious dialogue only underscores the disconnection, making her appear more like a robotic prototype than a fully realized character.

Although she fares somewhat better, Aubrey Plaza embodies high camp as a gold-digging news anchor using the alias Wow Platinum, a name we’re supposed to take seriously. Plaza exudes a self-awareness reminiscent of Gina Gershon’s performance in Showgirls (1995), and she at least appears to be having a great time. One standout moment in Megalopolis features Jon Voight dramatically condemning her as a “Wall Street slut” before shooting an arrow at her heart. In this scene, Plaza is clad in a Cleopatra-inspired outfit typically associated with provocative pole dancing performances.


Naturally, the madness continues with Shia LaBeouf’s portrayal of Clodio Pulcher, Caesar’s ambitious cousin who schemes to take control of his grandfather’s banking empire. The film reaches a peak of opulence during the wedding of Wow and Crassus, which doubles as a fundraising event for the city. Amidst this lavish affair, a virginal pop star resembling Taylor Swift, named Vesta Sweetwater (played by Grace VanderWaal), performs a song about her commitment to remain chaste until marriage. As she sings, the affluent guests are encouraged to make generous donations in support of her vow. The scene takes a chaotic turn when Clodio reveals doctored footage showing Vesta in a compromising position with Caesar, unleashing pandemonium among the attendees.

The multitude of competing characters ultimately makes Megalopolis feel overcrowded with underdeveloped ideas. Additionally, there’s a subplot involving a Soviet satellite set to crash into the atmosphere. The narrative is further cluttered by a host of peripheral characters, including a wealthy ‘fixer’ played by the underutilized Dustin Hoffman, D.B. Sweeney as a beleaguered Commissioner, Chloe Fineman as a drug-addicted socialite, Talia Shire as Caesar’s mentally ill mother, Jason Schwartzman as the Mayor’s assistant, and Kathryn Hunter as the Mayor’s current wife, who delivers lofty lines like, “Only those in a nightmare are capable of praising the moonlight.”

Osvaldo Golijov, known for his previous collaborations with Coppola on Youth Without Youth and Tetro, provides a score for Megalopolis that occasionally evokes the style of Terence Blanchard. However, it more frequently resembles bland, generic music typical of low-budget indie films. Adding to the film’s superfluous elements is a peculiar attempt at breaking the fourth wall, where an ‘actor’ appears on stage to portray a journalist interviewing Cesar onscreen. This choice contributes to the film’s excessive and unfocused nature, resulting in a work that often feels redundant and uninspired. At its worst, Megalopolis is a tedious viewing experience, and at its best, it fails to rise above mediocrity.

Overall: 2/10

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