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‘Megalopolis’: Francis Ford Coppola’s Decades-Long Dream Project Is Truly Epic

The filmmaker finally unveils his sprawling, hopeful statement on fallen empires, visionary artists and Utopias Now at Cannes — and it was worth the wait

Megalopolis review

Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel in 'Megalopolis.'

Some 45 years ago, the Cannes Film Festival invited Francis Ford Coppola to bring his latest project to the French Riviera for a special “work-in-progress” screening. The movie’s production had already achieved a mythic status as an example of Murphy’s Law made manifest, from last-minute actor replacements to monsoons to storylines being added, subtracted and rewritten on the fly. Coppola had sunk a lot of his own money into the project, since the studios had been reluctant to finance what seemed like a huge folly. The director had staked his reputation and his fortune on it. If he won the bet, he’d have proven his detractors wrong (plus he’d get the rights back in seven years and thus own the negative; Coppola could thank his lawyer Barry Hirsch for that.) If he lost, well… he’d have lost everything.

So reluctantly, after a good deal of back and forth, and a personal plea from the festival’s delegate general (and future president) Gilles Jacob, Coppola agreed to premiere his movie at Cannes. He arrived with a still-wet print. He left with the Palme d’Or. It was called Apocalypse Now.

History rendered its judgement a long time ago on Coppola’s war movie, and its rapturous reception at the fest has become a key part of its backstory. Whether or not the latest film that the 85-year-old director has brought to Cannes will receive the same type of embrace once it makes its way into the world remains to be seen, but it’s no less ambitious, sprawling, or awe-inspiring than his journey into the heart of darkness. If anything, Coppola has substantially upped the ante with this gamble. Megalopolis charts what feels like the dying gasp of an empire loosely based on ancient Rome and bearing a striking resemblance to America’s own contemporary, crumbling Circus Maximus. It’s a conceptual dream project that the filmmaker has been chasing for close to half of his life, and had he made and released this at any point in the early 21st century, it would have felt singular. In 2024, this personal, profound, perversely optimistic movie about slouching toward Utopia Now on a self-financed $120 million budget feels like a fucking unicorn.

It’s also the sort of movie that Cannes was made to premiere, showcase and give the red carpet treatment to, in that it’s the work of a genuine artist who is shooting for the moon in the most extravagant way possible. Say what you will about this grand gesture at filtering Edward Gibbon’s history lessons through a lens darkly, it is exactly the movie that Coppola set out to make — uncompromising, uniquely intellectual, unabashedly romantic (upper-case and lower-case R), broadly satirical yet remarkably sincere about wanting not just brave new worlds but better ones. Does it sometimes feel as if it’s distilling decades’ worth of book-club readings and coffee-klatch conversations into a tightly packed two hours? Yes. Was it worth the wait? Dear god, yes.

We open on the mean, skyscraper-dotted streets of New Rome, an Art Deco metropolis that seems dead set on outdoing the Old Rome in terms of decadence. There’s a fight for the soul of the city that’s been going on for some time, between Mayor Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito) and the town’s reigning visionary, Caesar Catilina (Adam Driver). The former wants to keep the wealthy rich, the powerful in power, the elite ruling on endless repeat. The latter is an architect who believes that change is not only inevitable, but beneficial — for him, of course, but for society at large. Catilina is a cross between Robert Moses, Howard Roark, some of the less toxic tech billionaires, and Caligula; given Driver’s cadence and the character’s dogged pursuit of his dreams, we’d say there’s a lot of Coppola himself in here as well.

Each are embroiled in familial dynamics that complicate their abilities to push their agendas without tabloid chatter and political scandal — but to paraphrase a wise man, you don’t ever take sides against the family. Cicero’s daughter, Julia (Game of Thrones/Fast & Furious franchise stalwart Nathalie Emmanuel), is a fixture in the nightclub scene and a card-carrying member of the party-girl contingent; her after-hours activities find their way into New Rome’s gossip rags with stunning regularity. Franklyn and his wife Teresa (Kathryn Hunter) love her, but she’s an embarrassment. As for Caesar, he’s part of a clan that includes a shit-stirring, mullet-rocking cousin named Clodio (Shia LeBeouf, bringing first-rate dirtbag skeez) and his celebrity-banker uncle, Hamilton Crassus III. This geriatric titan of industry is doddering, crass, sex-obsessed, conservative to a fault, loves wrestling and rocks a conspicuously blond hairdo. Three guesses as to who he might be modeled after. In what we can only call a poetically just casting coup, he’s played by Jon Voight.

Thanks to a material that Caesar has developed known as Megalon, he’s finally ready to give New Rome its shining paradise on a hill: Megalopolis, “a city that people can dream about.” The mayor and his cronies — which include Jason Schwartzman and a growly Dustin Hoffman in desperate need of a lozenge — think this genius with a fondness for back capes and his plans for an urban space where you can get to a park from anywhere in five minutes need to be stopped. Julia believes he’s the future, all wrapped up in one moody, broad-shouldered package. She takes a gig as his publicist-slash-assistant and, eventually, his heart.

Circling vulture-like around all of this is Clodio, who also desires Julia and harbors envy for Caesar. And there’s also Wow Platinum (Aubrey Plaza), a vapid Wall Street reporter who used to be Caesar’s mistress, is now Hamilton’s wife, and will destroy her former lover by any means necessary. And Vesta Sweetwater (Grace VanderWaal), a pop star who’s auctioning off her virginity — no, not in that way — for charity. And the barbarians at the gates of New Rome, rabbled-roused to the point of maximum rabidness. And the spirit of Caesar’s late wife, who many believe was poisoned by her husband and whose passing haunts him. And the fact that Caesar has the ability to stop time. And… and….

Coppola is filling both the screen and the narrative of Megalopolis to their very brims, dropping references from everything to Plutarch to Emerson to the Dingbat News, a.k.a. Sofia Coppola’s handmade broadsheet that she and some friends made for Zoetrope Studio employees when they were tweens. Every future screening should come with a syllabus, which would include The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Fountainhead, Paradise Lost, The Power Broker, Twelve Against the Gods, The Shape of Things to Come — the book that inspired Coppola to chase this cinematic white whale for years — and the director’s own Live Cinema and Its Techniques. (For extra credit, wed we’d add The Path to Paradise, Sam Wasson’s book on Coppola’s grand Zoetrope experiment.) The food for thought here is a Vegas buffet of philosophy, capsule histories and literary touchstones.

But the man calling the shots is a storyteller first and foremost, with filmmaker coming in as a close second, and he’s also utilizing a grab bag of visual and theatrical tricks to trace the idea of an artist grasping for social rebirth. Laurence Fishburne‘s Greek chorus sidles up to a blue-tinted flashback straight out of D.W. Griffith; copious amounts of CGI backgrounds shares screen space with old-fashioned film trickery. Caesar can digitally freeze everything around him one second, then stare lovingly at Julia via a silent-cinema iris shot the next. During the press screening at Cannes, a live actor interacted a preshot Driver from the front of the auditorium. There’s a nod to almost every one of the auteur’s past works, from gangster dramas to gothic shadow plays. Form begets content. Coppola views this “man of the future possessed by the past” as not just a hero but, likely, a kindred spirit.

There are those who will appreciate the punch-drunk sensation that accompanies watching Megalopolis and its constantly shifting, ever-curious omnivorousness. And there are those who may view Coppola’s insistence that the Garden of Eden can be dialectically willed into existence as naive. (“As long as there are questions and a dialogue…that’s utopia,” Caesar utters late in the film.) Yet to imagine that an 85-year-old filmmaker, who’s suffered great loss and experienced great love, who’s spent a lifetime thinking about history’s heroes and villains and thinkers, and who’s willing to risk it all for one last magnum opus can’t really be considered naive. They may just be holding on to the revolutionary idea of not being cynical or giving in to the idea that it’s all too late. Maybe we still have a chance at finding our collective better angels. Maybe there’s life in the art forms we look to for enlightenment in addition to entertainment.

Coppola ends his movie with the sounds of a baby cooing and a clock ticking, cues which suggest both rebirth and the passage of time that keeps moving forward, whether we want it to or not. Then, for good measure, he adds in Capra-esque coda that risks being corny in the name of one last point to make. It somehow seems oddly appropriate. Coppola has said he’s developing another idea for another idea for a project, but you almost hope he goes out with this swan song. It feels like a final statement of purpose, a summation of a lifetime’s worth of dreaming. And what is cinema but a canvas for dreamers? Whether Megalopolis makes a billion dollars or bupkiss is beside the point. So long as there are people who love movies that are actually about things, and think about the past 6000 years of human civilization, there is an audience for this.

From Rolling Stone US