City of Angels
Screenplay : Dana Stevens (based on an original by Wim Wenders and Peter Handke)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Nicolas Cage (Seth), Meg Ryan (Maggie), André Braugher (Cassiel), Dennis Franz (Messinger), Colm Feore (Jordan), Robin Bartlett (Anne), Joanna Merlin (Teresa)
There is a striking scene early in "City of Angels," where all the angels who live unseen in our midst, gather at the beach to watch the sun rise. The camera moves above them, showing the endless rows of ethereal men and women, all garbed in black. Then the camera moves in on the face of Seth, an angel played by Nicolas Cage, and as the sun rises, he smiles and his entire face lights up. You see, the angels can hear music in sunrises and sunsets, but they cannot feel a human touch.
It is an important scene for several reasons. First of all, it is one of many instances in the film that make angels seem thoroughly plausible. The film presents these fantastic beings as normal-looking people who drift amongst the inhabitants of earth, watching what goes on with little interference. There are none of the standard, hokey angel references used in recent films like "Angels in the Outfield" (1994) or "Michael" (1996). The angels here are stark and believable.
This early scene on the beach is also an important scene of juxtaposition, for its shows how God's angels can enjoy aspects of the earth that human cannot, and yet they are denied so many simple human pleasures, like feeling the sand on their feet or the waves lapping at their legs, or the smell of the salt in the air. There is an inherent tragedy in being an angel, although there is much beauty in it as well. They eternally walk the earth, listening to our thoughts, touching us in our pain, and leading the dying to heaven. Like human existence, being an angel is often confused and unsure.
"City of Angels" is essentially a love story, between Seth and a human, a beautiful but sad heart surgeon named Maggie (Meg Ryan). He first sees her when he is in her operating room, waiting to lead the soul of her dying patient to heaven. Maggie is distraught, doing everything in her power to stop the man from dying on her table, and Seth is moved by her efforts and, more importantly, her overwhelming sadness when the patient dies. Angels have the limited power to soothe humans in time of misery and pain, and Seth does what he can with his invisible touch, but it's not enough. He wants to be with her and share her pain, not just stand back at a distance.
He learns that the only way to fulfill his desire for human love and touch is for him to "fall" and become human. He learns this from another fallen angel, played by Dennis Franz ("N.Y.P.D. Blue") in a touching and humorous performance. Sitting at a diner together, Franz tells Cage's character about how wonderful it is to be human -- to be able to taste food, feel another person's skin, smell the air, and most importantly, have a loving wife and children. Of course, there is pain to go along with all this, but for Seth, it will be worth it.
"City of Angels" is something of a reinterpretation of Wim Wender's haunting 1988 film "Wings of Desire." Wenders' film was more like a poem -- it was the feeling, the emotion that truly mattered over what actually happened. The Americanized version moves the location from divided Berlin to broken Los Angeles, and the emphasis shifts onto the relationship between the immortal angel and the mortal human. And, unlike most foreign films that are re-made into Hollywood fare, it doesn't suffer extensive damage. This may be because director Brad Silberling ("Casper") and screenwriter Dana Stevens ("Blink") wanted to make "City of Angels" its own movie -- inspired by "Wings of Desire," but not an attempt to copy it.
And yet, "City of Angels" is not a typical Hollywood movie. It is beautifully filmed in lush colors by cinematographer John Seale ("The English Patient"), whose sweeping aerial shots and golden lighting make Los Angeles into an almost unrecognizable new world. Seale creates many striking visuals: in addition to the beach scene, there is a wonderful sequence in a circular library where all the angels appear at banisters all around, looking down at Seth as he watches Maggie walk by.
While the film travels along a charted plot, it takes time to develop its characters and situations; it sheds light on the boundaries between what is earthly and what is heavenly, and shows just how thin those boundaries are. Both Cage and Ryan give soulful, soft-spoken performances. Ryan, who is usually so bouncy and energetic, truly embodies a sadness that can only be alleviated by a heavenly touch. Cage projects all his desire and longing to be human in simple, heartfelt gazes, and speaks with the comforting, knowing voice that only an angel could have.
What is most striking about "City of Angels" is that Stevens has added a new ending to the screenplay, which is both unexpected and challenging. It's not a formulaic Hollywood ending, because it is both sad and uplifting at the same time. It doesn't give the audience what it thinks it wants at the end of a romance. Instead, it offers something much better, something that speaks to the depths of what it means to be human and alive.
©1998 James Kendrick