‘Bafflingly shallow’ or ‘staggeringly ambitious’? Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis splits critics

<span>(L-R) Giancarlo Esposito, Aubrey Plaza, Francis Ford Coppola, Romy Croquet Mars, Adam Driver, Nathalie Emmanuel, Laurence Fishburne, Kathryn Hunter and Talia Shire at the Megalopolis red carpet at Cannes film festival on Thursday.</span><span>Photograph: Gisela Schober/Getty Images</span>
(L-R) Giancarlo Esposito, Aubrey Plaza, Francis Ford Coppola, Romy Croquet Mars, Adam Driver, Nathalie Emmanuel, Laurence Fishburne, Kathryn Hunter and Talia Shire at the Megalopolis red carpet at Cannes film festival on Thursday.Photograph: Gisela Schober/Getty Images

After 40 years in the making, Francis Ford Coppola’s passion project Megalopolis has finally premiered at Cannes film festival – to polarising reviews that have variously called the film “staggeringly ambitious”, “absolute madness”, and “bafflingly shallow”.

Megalopolis, which screened at Cannes on Thursday night to a seven-minute standing ovation, was once considered a pipe dream for its years of false starts and abandoned shoots as well as its baroque, borderline unfilmable premise about “political ambition, genius and conflicted love” where “the fate of Rome haunts a modern world unable to solve its own social problems”.

Coppola, the 85-year-old film-maker of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, financed the film with $120m of his own money. It stars Adam Driver as a Nobel prize-winning architect and scientist named Cesar Catilina, who has seemingly gained powers to control time and space after a scientific discovery. Much of the film revolves around his grand plan for a “utopian building project” called Megalopolis, which clashes with the goals of city mayor Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito).

Related: Megalopolis review – Coppola’s passion project is megabloated and megaboring

The film also stars Jon Voight as Hamilton Crassus III, who is having an affair with TV news presenter Wow Platinum (Aubrey Plaza); and Shia LaBeouf as Crassus’s grandson, a politician named Clodio Pulcher.

In a two-star review for the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw describes the sci-fi saga as “megabloated and megaboring” and a “passion project without passion … full of high-school-valedictorian verities about humanity’s future”.

The critic Bilge Ebiri wrote in Vulture that Megalopolis “sometimes feels like the fevered thoughts of a precocious child, driven and dazzled and maybe a little lost in all the possibilities of the world before him”.

“There is nothing in Megalopolis that feels like something out of a ‘normal’ movie,” he wrote. “The characters speak in archaic phrases and words, mixing shards of Shakespeare, Ovid, and at one point straight-up Latin.”

In one scene, Driver recites Hamlet’s famous “to be, or not to be” soliloquy in full. “Why? I’m not exactly sure,” Ebiri wrote. “But it sure sounds good.”

The New York Times reported a similar “mishmash of acting styles” with dialogue “either bluntly declarative or totally impenetrable”. At its Cannes press screening, according to the New York Times, the film took a meta turn when a man in the theatre began asking questions to Driver’s character, who answered onscreen.

“Megalopolis can feel almost as if HBO’s Rome was rewritten by a thousand monkeys, some of them even getting their spelling correct,” the AV Club’s Jason Gorber wrote. “The pure, unfiltered artistic integrity of Megalopolis reminds less of Roman tales than of Greek ones that evoke hubris and irony, which will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that’s paid attention to Coppola’s inimitable career.”

Other reviews were more positive. Deadline called the film “something of a mess: unruly, exaggerated and drawn to pretension like a mother to a flame” – but also lauded its “sheer audacity” as “the work of a master artist who has taken to Imax like Caravaggio to canvas”.

The New Yorker described Megalopolis as “aggressively heady, stubbornly illogical, and beguilingly optimistic” in a review that praised its “stunningly poignant pleasures” – including side characters played by Laurence Fishburne and Coppola’s sister Talia Shire.

Related: ‘Has this guy ever made a movie before?’ Francis Ford Coppola’s 40-year battle to film Megalopolis

The Hollywood Reporter said it was a film plagued by self-indulgence, though ultimately “amusing, playful, visually dazzling and illuminated by a touching hope for humanity”.

IndieWire went even further. The film “doesn’t show us the future of cinema so much as it galvanises our desire to ensure it has one”, wrote critic David Ehrlich, who also called Megalopolis a “transcendently sincere manifesto about the role of an artist at the end of an empire”.

The response, perhaps, is reminiscent of Coppola’s monumental 1979 war drama Apocalypse Now which also had a beleaguered production process and inspired passionate, polarising reviews at its Cannes premiere before eventually ascending to acclaim.

Megalopolis recently secured distributors across Europe days ahead of its Cannes premiere, though US rights are still up in the air.

Cannes continues until 25 May.