Angels are currently popular with people who have few other religious beliefs because there is no hard work involved. If detached from their Judeo-Christian origins, the heavenly messengers can satisfy the need for comfort and guidance from a supernatural source without a tough-minded moral code. You don't have to change your way of life or wrestle with ideas like sin and repentance for them to visit you.
City of Angels is a slick, eager-to-please love story that exploits this hunger for loving, ethereal entities who make no demands. Based on German director Wim Wenders's 1987 existential, black-and-white classic, Wings of Desire, it smoothes down the rough edges of the moody, off-beat original to concoct a commercial product reminiscent of the 1990 Hollywood hit, Ghost.
In keeping with its watered-down spirituality, City of Angels’ opening line is: “I don't pray,” delivered by the mother of a young girl who's dying. Present in the sick room is Seth (Nicholas Cage), the angel who will escort the child to the other side. Garbed in black slacks, black sweatshirt, and black trench coat, he looks as if he's dressed for an arty, alternative rock concert. He's usually only visible to the dead although, when he wants to, he can appear to living beings.
The film's conceit is that we in the audience can see these heavenly escorts while the humans in the movie can't. Director Brad Siberling (Caspar) and screenwriter Dana Stevens (Blink) have set the action in contemporary Los Angeles, creating a surreal, otherworldly look. Angels drape themselves on top of freeway signs, Sunset Strip billboards and tall high-rises. They almost never smile and always look down. They congregate as a group at sunrise and sunset on the beach to listen to the music of the spheres. Flocks of them also hang out at a spacious, futuristic library where it's easy to overhear people's thoughts.
Seth expresses to his angel buddy, Cassiel (Andre Braugher), curiosity about what it might be like to be human. Although they live forever, they're unable to feel emotions. As otherworldly comforters, they can lay their hands on agitated souls and offer relief, but they have no sense of taste or touch.
Seth is present when a heart attack victim dies during what had been expected to be a routine operation. He gazes deeply into the eyes of the surgeon, Dr. Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan), who has begun to doubt herself after losing the patient. He notes her crisis of confidence and resolves to help her cope.
Seth, in effect, stalks her, materializing at will, and as he can read her mind, he's able to ask her probing questions about herself and life in general. Maggie finds herself attracted to his intense gaze and innocent curiosity. Before the death of her patient, she'd had a purely rationalistic view of the world, which would have made it impossible for her to believe in someone like Seth. However, now she has begun to wonder if larger forces aren't at work.
Maggie's boyfriend, Tyordan (Colin Feore), who's also a surgeon, wants to marry her. His skepticism about her philosophic musings makes her appreciate Seth's reflections on the subject.
Maggie's next patient, a construction-worker named Nathaniel Messinger (Dennis Franz), seems to be the kind of person every heart surgeon dreads. Volatile and overweight, he sneaks quarts of ice cream into his hospital room and devours them just before a scheduled operation.
What Maggie doesn't know is that Messinger was himself once an angel who chose to become mortal. Now happily married with children, he tells Seth why and how he made the transition, and his obvious lust for life demonstrates that he has no regrets—which is as close to a theological discussion as the film ever broaches. Messinger explains that God gave angels free will to leave their heavenly state but that once a being makes that leap he can't go back. Seth and Maggie realize they're in love, and he reveals he's an angel. Maggie takes it in stride, and they both understand that they will only be able to consummate their passion if he becomes an earthling.
Seth takes the plunge and finds himself enjoying the simple things of life like eating a pear or taking a hot shower. But events don't always turn out as expected, and he must learn to balance the downside of being human against its sensual joys.
City of Angels’two basic premises aren't, in themselves, harmful. True love between a man and woman is one of God's greatest gifts, and a belief in angels can be a good thing if connected to a more fully developed, orthodox cosmology.
But the movie presents these two ideas as if they were part of a New Age primer on romance and spirituality. Its wingless angels perform no miracles and deliver no messages from God. Instead the filmmakers offer up contemporary clichés like “we aren't always in control” and show that love can make the pain of that fact more bearable. We also must learn to live more fully in the present, it's suggested, and be receptive to the possibility of an afterlife.
The problem with all this is that happiness and personal fulfillment are the ultimate goals. The center of the universe becomes the self, not God.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
City of Angels is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America.