Reviewed by: Christopher Heyn
“Even angels long to look into such things.” I Peter 1:12b (NIV)
Although the apostle Peter was referring to the mystery of salvation, not romantic love, this verse was the first thing that popped into my head after viewing “City of Angels”, the American remake of director Wim Wenders' classic 1987 German film “Wings of Desire”. Unlike the powerful original, I was concerned that the Hollywood version would be shallow and soulless. Thankfully, it is not.
“City of Angels” is transposed from Berlin to Los Angeles, where Meg Ryan stars as Maggie Rice, a heart surgeon who does some serious soul-searching after she loses a patient on her operating table. “What if we’re not the ones really in control?” she asks. This profound question draws the angel Seth, played by an understated Nicholas Cage, to her. At first, he’s intrigued by Maggie’s strange mix of stubbornness, caring, and powerlessness. Eventually, that intrigue turns to romantic interest, then love. But she’s a human and he’s an angel. What to do?
Enter Dennis Franz as Mr. Messinger, a feisty heart patient that lets Seth in on the secret. He was a former angel who gave up his spiritual existence in order to become human, fall in love, and experience everything we humans do, including death. Seth must exercise “the most incredible gift ever given”—free will—in order to “fall,” and fall in love with Maggie. The scene where Seth makes that choice is one of several profoundly moving points in the film. The ultimate outcome of his choice is everything, and nothing, like he expected it to be.
Although “City of Angels” is a deeply moving and often surprisingly humorous film, it should come as no surprise to anyone that it is lacking in the theological department. Like any Hollywood film dealing with spiritual topics, everyone goes to Heaven when they die, and Jesus is never mentioned. However, unlike its predecessor, God is mentioned several times, and the film is not afraid to ask important questions about human existence, and what role, if any, the spiritual world plays in our lives. The audience is left to fill in the blanks for themselves.
Meg Ryan easily gives the best performance of her career, and the onscreen chemistry between her and Nicholas Cage is palpable. The film is also as visually stunning in color as “Wings of Desire” was in black and white. Being PG-13, however, there is profanity (about a dozen obscenities and a few profanities), plus non-sexual nudity (rear male nudity of man running into the ocean and side view of a man in the shower). The surgical scenes may make some viewers uncomfortable, as will the implied love scene between Ryan and Cage (mixed with graphic conversation, but containing no nudity).
“City of Angels” is highly recommended for older teens and adults, and should spark some interesting spiritual conversations. Then, do yourself a favor and rent the original, too.
For a good theological look at angels, see:
What does the Bible teach us about angels? (including Who or what are angels? / How did angels originate? / How many angels are there? / Do angels have bodies? / What do angels look like? / Do people become angels after death? / How do angels compare to human beings? / Are all angels good? / What is the job description for an angel?)