Even the angels couldn’t save this one

Published July 1, 1998

IN 1988, the German director Wim Wenders made a movie called Wings of Desire. It was an ethereal, haunting tale of angels who observed modern life in Berlin. It focused on the spiritual needs of people and the emptiness of life in the city. Ten years later, Hollywood has produced a film based on Wenders’ work called City of Angels. Directed by Brad Siberling, starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan, it’s a romantic drama about an angel who wants to experience being human.

From start to finish, this is a beautifully styled movie: the design, photography and editing is magnificent. It takes place in Los Angeles, the city of angels, and the angels in this film all dress in black, in true LA fashion. They are present everywhere, from the beach where they gather daily to watch and listen to the sunset (there’s music mortals can’t hear) to the airport where they stand silently at that place where planes gently take off and touch down, to the hospitals where they stand by, steadying the hands of surgeons or accompanying patients who pass away from this life to the next. It is in the hospital that Seth, the angel, (Cage) meets Dr. Maggie Rice (Ryan) and the story begins.

Rice is a heart surgeon – she’s smart, hip, quick and invincible. When a patient of hers dies on the table, her confidence is shaken. Seth has come to escort her patient to the next life, but Maggie fascinates him. He makes himself visible to her, comforts her and pursues her. So touched by her beauty, he chooses to become human so that they can be together.

It’s all pretty far-fetched: add in another “former” angel who goes by the name of Nathaniel Messinger (Dennis Franz) and you have the making of some pretty treacly Hollywood goo. Messinger (get it?) is Seth’s contact to help him figure out how to get to be human. Seth’s eventual fall to earth does result in one lovely night for he and the doctor in front of the fireplace, but there’s a plot twist that turns the film quickly in another direction and, before you know it, credits are rolling and you’re out of the cinema.

The film’s worth watching to see Meg Ryan be smart and competent and vulnerable and beautiful all at the same time and to see Nicholas Cage, released from the action adventure films, wide-eyed, goofy, but endearing as an angel. Canadian theatre-goers will be interested in seeing former Stratford Festival actor Colm Feore play Ryan’s mortal love interest.

But the love story and the plot twist take away from the more-interesting idea that angels might really inhabit our lives. The names of the characters and the turns of the plot disappeared from my mind moments after the film ended. But the recurring image of angels all around life but invisible to mortal eyes stayed with me for days. Who knows? Maybe if we lived a little closer to the God who surprised the disciples at Pentecost, we too might hear music at sunset, feel the calming presence of an angel when distressed, know the presence of a world unseen but very close to the too-often superficial lives we live. Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and a member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.


  • Peter Elliott

    The Very Rev. Peter Elliott is adjunct faculty at Vancouver School of Theology. From 1994 to 2019 he served as dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver.

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