Review: City of Angels (dir. Brad Silberling, 1998)

Review: City of Angels (dir. Brad Silberling, 1998) April 10, 1998

Film buffs cringe whenever an American studio tries to remake a European classic, but they tend to turn a blind eye to the more subtle ways in which movie distributors cater to American sensibilities.

Consider the fate of Heaven Over Berlin, an austere art-house flick about angels who ponder the nature of human existence. Never heard of it? That may be because Wim Wenders’ masterful 1987 film was rechristened Wings of Desire for English-speaking viewers who, apparently, prefer a hint of sensuality to anything quasi-religious.

City of Angels, the glossy American remake of that film, is thus simply the next logical step in its assimilation. Here, the story has been moved to Los Angeles — hence the title — and the multifaceted interest which the angels once showed in humanity is reduced to a fairly conventional, and thoroughly Hollywood, love story.

That said, however, the new film does have its pleasures. And if you hold it to a more purely American standard — by comparing it to other romances, perhaps, or to the angelic kitsch flooding our popular culture — it’s actually not that bad.

In essence, Seth (Nicolas Cage), the angel who falls for beautiful surgeon Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan), is just a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. He is a spirit being whose duties appear to consist mostly of guiding the souls of the dead to heaven. He spends his spare time reading human minds and comparing notes with his fellow angels, who wonder what it would be like to live in physical bodies.

Maggie, on the other hand, is all too human. When a patient dies on her operating table — his heart literally in her hands — she begins to despair. Although she is an agnostic, she wonders aloud if there is a hand bigger than hers guiding the world and, if so, how it could let things get so out of control.

Seth, moved by her torment, decides to reveal himself to her, and in the process he begins to fall in love. He also discovers that one of her other patients, Nathan Messinger (Dennis Franz), is a former angel who became a human being so that he could enjoy a world of taste, smell, touch and other sensory experiences.

And so Seth has a decision to make: whether to remain an angel, thus freeing Maggie to pursue human affairs, or to become a mortal human being himself and consummate their relationship (with marriage, of course, being set aside for the sake of narrative expedience).

The actors seem perfectly cast in their roles, for the most part, though Meg Ryan doesn’t quite have the steadfast presence one might expect of a surgeon. Nicolas Cage, meanwhile, gives his angel a spiritual dimension not unlike that which he brought to the action heroes he played last summer, gracing Seth with compassion and some genuinely funny moments.

Despite the talk of God and angels, this film has no distinctly Christian elements. However, Dana Stevens’ script is peppered with references to free will and the problem of suffering. There’s no hook big enough here for a theologian to hang his coat, but all the same, the film reflects a distinctly North American concern with matters of faith.

Wings of Desire was a rather abstract and metaphysical tale in which the Berlin Wall served as a metaphor for the divisions between body and spirit, reality and fiction, and individual versus group identity. Wenders explored a number of exciting philosophical issues, but never delved into anything particularly religious (or, for that matter, romantic).

City of Angels, however, raises theological questions, albeit in a somewhat pedestrian manner, and makes them an integral part of its otherwise formulaic plot. Even if the filmmakers are simply pandering to their audience, the fact that they anticipate a crowd willing to consider these sorts of questions is, for my money, rather promising.

— A version of this article was first published in ChristianWeek.

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