I was recently asked what my favorite movies were, and was ridiculed when I included City of Angels on my list. I was quickly informed that not only was it not a great movie, it was not even a good movie. This sent me to contemplating how this could be, and I came to the conclusion it was matter of one’s perspective in evaluating a movie.
Evaluated from the perspective of a film critic, or for those seeking deep plot lines, or compared to action flicks, I would concede it doesn’t rate up there with Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, or Die Hard (pick any of the five). Evaluated from a theological viewpoint with an eye on eschatology, I get a different answer, and maybe that is why it makes my list every time.
The movie concentrates on two key characters, Maggie (Meg Ryan) a driven heart surgeon and Seth (Nicholas Cage) an angel. Seth is joined along the journey by Cassie (Andre Braugher) also an angel and Nathaniel (Dennis Franz) a fallen angel. The movie explores the hypothetical relationships between humans and angels, and the overlap between our world and theirs.
Let me be really clear here – I am not suggesting the movie provides an accurate insight into life in the spiritual world. It did, however, open several doors to new ways of envisioning the life to come for me.
The Nature of Angels
Probably the clearest message the movie delivers regarding the nature of angels is they are all around us pretty much all the time. The movie constantly returns to images of people going about their daily business oblivious to the angels who surround them. Only rarely do the angels step in and redirect people’s actions. For the most part, they watch and wait. This is an easy premise for me to accept.
The movie also projects angels as being devoid of most of the fears that inhibit us, which makes sense given they are immortal and we don’t know for sure what feelings they might have, physical or emotional. In the movie, they seem to be attracted to heights, perching on highway signs and on the roofs of very tall buildings.
They congregate in two places – public libraries and in “dangerous” places. We return to the library several times. The angels seem drawn to this repository of knowledge and learning, even speaking to the readers through the messages buried in the books being read. I often have revelations as I read that are not “of my own.” Is it possible this is indeed in part attributable to the mingling of reality and spirituality? Not a question that is easily answered . . . nor easily rejected.
We also find the angels congregating around the airport. I originally associated this with their affinity for heights, but ultimately concluded it was intended to point us to 1) the eminent dangers of flight and 2) their readiness to intervene in high-risk environments.
Which brings me to the primary role of angels in the movie – they serve as travel escorts.
We are first introduced to Seth in the hospital where Maggie works, as he waits patiently while a small girl dies so he may “receive” her on the other side. He welcomes her comfortingly and talks about the life she is leaving, her memories and eases her transition to the next life. This escorting role is repeated several times throughout the movie.
His exchange with the young girl opens the door to two aspects of angelhood. The first which strikes me is Seth’s curiosity about life as a human being. He is as interested in probing her for what she experienced as he is in educating her on what lies ahead. I am fascinated by the thought those on the other side are as intrigued about us as I am about them.
The other revelation comes a little later in a conversation between Seth and Cassie. In Seth’s conversation with the little girl, she asked him if she will get wings. Seth and Cassie are both puzzled by humans believing they will transform into angels post-death, failing to realize that angels and humans are of two separate natures, and those distinctions remain into the next realm.
Power of Passion
During an assignment to escort a man who dies on Maggie’s operating table, Seth is captivated by Maggie – her passion and fortitude. He continually watches her in amazement, while trying to learn what drives and inspires her. As he studies her, his fascination grows. This combination of curiosity and personal interest give rise to a yearning to live in her world.
This is where Nathaniel, the fallen angel enters the scene. Nathaniel tells Seth that it is indeed possible to transcend his angel nature and become human. We of the Christian faith firmly believe that Jesus transcended his Godly nature to become human, so the possibility might transfer to the angels (key word here – might). City of Angels presents a similar transcendence for Seth, who makes the leap (quite literally in the movie). He is so consumed with his passion for humanity and Maggie in particular that he is willing to sacrifice everything, even his very being, to suffer the change. In the literary sense, this is Jesus Imagery – transcendence and sacrifice.
Two of the most beautiful and enchanting scenes in the movie involve the angels gathering to listen to the sunrise. I have long believed that senses and abilities we cultivate in this life will be magnified to unspeakable levels in the next life. The moviemakers incorporate this idea by depicting the angels listening to the sunrise in a state of ecstasy. In true Hollywood fashion, the sunrises are dramatic and glorious as the angels gather on the beach to take them in. Not only do they see the glory of God’s sunrise, they hear his glory, and the accompanying music swells to amazing heights as does the sun, and it is all so . . . well, glorious.
I can’t tell you for sure where the movie leaves me, other than to say it always leaves me pensive. I love inspired people who dare to imagine. The artists who brought us City of Angels excelled in imagination and in stirring mine.
Again, I tell you the theology here is highly suspect and I am not endorsing this as how life occurs on the other side of the veil. I am suggesting, however, that the proximity of the spiritual world is much closer to us that we perceive, which this movie well communicates. I am also inspired by the vision of grace and compassion the movie depicts for life in the spiritual world.
Oh yeah – if you should watch the movie expecting direct, or even indirect, references to Jesus, Christianity or any Trinitarian component, you will be greatly disappointed. I have watched the movie repeatedly and found none. Even so, it turned my face toward God and my thinking to his Kingdom, and I find strength and encouragement therein.
The greatest line in the movie, and one of my very favorites across all movies, comes from Seth in his angel state – “Some things are true whether you believe in them or not.”
On a journey that leads into his presence,