Plotting out the goals for movie remakes is far from an exact science: where one aims to do justice to the original production with reverent beat-by-beat reproduction, another might preserve familiar tones, devices, and characters while modifying the original story to express similar points in different ways. City of Angels, Hollywood's reimagining of Wim Wenders' award-winning existential fantasy Wings of Desire, intentionally falls into the latter category. Taking the concept of a divine immortal's desire for human interaction and reshaping it into an overt late-'90s romantic drama, it streamlines much of the original film's philosophical center to focus on the unconventional love between an angel and the human woman garnering his attention. Perhaps that's why it actually works as adequately as it does, where the bittersweet yarn in spins doesn't really try to talk down to the audience, instead letting the simplicity of appreciating people and the little things in life say enough within its supernatural premise.
City of Angels has it share of disappointments, namely in the depiction of Seth (Nicolas Cage), the invisible being who works for the omniscient force undefined in the story. Not in the portrayal of angels themselves, though, which mirrors Wenders' work closely enough for a mainstream remake. Unlike the dramatic depictions in classic artwork, Seth and his kind are wingless, black-clad vagabonds with the inability to be seen or experience certain senses, whose job is to sooth those in despair without intervention in their boss' grand plan. After caring for an attractive doctor, Maggie (Meg Ryan), following the death of a patient on her operating table and believing she actually sees him at one point, Seth becomes fixated on her, to a point where he grows frustrated with his ethereal form. What he discovers through a mysterious expert on angels, Nathaniel Messinger (a charismatic Dennis Franz in his NYPD Blue prime), is that he's able to make the choice to abandon his existence and become human, which could be worth the sacrifice for the warmth that humans experience.
Seth's fascination with human life almost entirely hinges on this specific woman, instead of naturally developing as disenchantment with immortality and the inability to enjoy simple pleasures. Director Brad Silberling doesn't do much to stress the budding internal conflict within his limited existence, something Wim Wenders' original does successfully, which guides City of Angels towards a shallower message about the magnetism of love instead of a pure desire for something more than an eternal, sensory-impaired life of observation. Dana Stevens' screenplay tinkers with the story in ways that could mildly deepen that point, such as Maggie being her own helpless servant to life's grand design as a surgeon (a clever touch), but they're squandered on Seth's curious yet seemingly content place as an angel -- much like his friend, Cassiel (Andre Braugher) -- as he pacifies restless souls in libraries and greets the dying in hospitals. Only the desire for a woman's touch could steer him away, apparently.
City of Angels sacrifices existentialist ponderings for easier-to-swallow romanticism, yet there's an appeal to the ease of its supernatural love story, driven by the performances and chemistry between Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan that tap into a different sort of appreciation for life's details. This is one of Cage's most intentionally restrained roles: instead of the animated candor he brings to Face/Off and Leaving Las Vegas, he forms Seth into a stoic and enigmatic persona with deep pools for eyes and a gentle demeanor, enriching those scenes where he communicates with transitioning souls. His interactions with Maggie are eerily ethereal, observing her in the privacy of her home and making his presence known only when it's opportune; whether one finds his secret observation innocent or creepy can go either way. However, the scenes where he chooses to let himself be seen and interact with Maggie, where his other-worldly attributes illustrate their differences in ways known only by the audience and Seth at first, can be sweetly emotive and a stirring foundation for their soulful attraction.
There's also a degree of heavy-handedness that goes along with the blunt emotion in City of Angels, though, carrying it towards a forced downhearted conclusion that sends mixed messages about the nature of free will. A melancholy streak runs through Silberling's remake that could be considered foreshadowing for such an end, I suppose, backed by solemn '90s pop tunes that reinforce the point about the magnitude of fleeting joyful moments -- the things we take for granted -- and the weight of an undying being's choice to abandon eternity. Yet, in a film with an underlying spiritual side and a grasp on the ideas of serendipity and the universe's grand design, it can be as frustrating as it is deeply-felt; Seth ponders, "Am I being punished?" about what happens, and it's difficult to dismiss as a possibility, intended or not. The intimacy generated beforehand lends City of Angels a degree of sentiment in its end, yet one can't help but feel that it's for the sake of tear-jerker cinema instead of communicating a poignant message, something more eloquently and elegantly handled in Wenders' original.
Video and Audio:
It's fitting that the strengths in Warner Bros.' 2.35:1-framed 1080p AVC transfer hinge on small details instead of big-picture impressiveness. Altogether, despite a rather clean appearance in terms of print damage and age, it's not an overwhelmingly impressive treatment: it's intermittently hazier than it probably should be, exhibits reddish skin hues at points, and struggles with crushing black levels and heavier grain during outdoor sequences. However, there are moments that focus on subtle details -- water collecting on skin, tendrils of Meg Ryan's hair, the waffle pattern in stereo speakers, stain streaks on a concrete bridge, and the texture of a pear's skin -- that accentuate the noticeable advantages of the high-definition uptick. The color palette and skin tones are generally pleasing, barring a few stumbles, especially in the cabin sequences later on in the film, while light bouncing off skin and the crisp transparency of ocean waves nail its atmospheric touches. It's flawed, yes, but there's some beauty to be found here.
The 5.1 Master Audio track delivers about what I'd expect from a '90s pop-culture romantic drama: the music sounds rock-solid, the surround activity is limited but robust from the channels it utilizes, and the dialogue fluctuates from fine, nimble clarity to muted moments and light metallic distortion. Those pop songs from the likes of The Goo Goo Dolls and Sarah McLachlan are responsible for most of the surround activity and robustness, though, with only a few atmospheric elements traveling to the rears to coexist with the sporadic scoring. Sounds effects from the front, however, from the cascade of shower water to the sound of a jackhammer and hospital beeping, are clear and without distortion as they move between the left and right channels. Lower-frequency activity is, also, limited, but the few moments where it's exercised are suitable. And while there are moments of thinness in the dialogue, there are others -- including most of Dennis Franz' scenes and more animated Nic Cage moments late in the film -- that are quite strong.
Fans of City of Angels will be pleased to hear that most of the of the special features from the older standard-definition DVD have been ported over to the Blu-ray. That includes a pair of Feature-Length Commentaries: one from Brad Silberling, which dotingly discusses Wim Wenders' original film and thoughtfully takes time to "organize" the chaos" of his film's construction; and another from Dana Stevens and Charles Roven, which quickly addresses how the script liberally borrows the good things from Wings of Desire and how Stevens fought for its somber ending. A pair of Scene-Specific Commentaries (Both 17:36, SD) have also been made available: cinematographer John Seale sits down and talks about his shooting processes, how he utilized angles for getting the angels' vantage point and why he used certain film stocks; and Lilly Kilvert discusses her participation through John Seale in replicating Wenders' original film, crafting the separation of between angels and humans, and how they tackled the library sequence. Both partial commentaries operate within the film's first eighteen minutes.
A handful of vintage Behind the Scenes supplements also make an appearance, the first being Making Angels (29:30, 4x3 SD) that takes a moderately in-depth look at the film's construction. Classic interviews with Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan, director Brad Siberling, and others chronicle the process of bringing angels to life, adapting (and making changes to) Wim Wenders' original film, and emphasizing the right amount of spirituality present in the story. Plenty of behind-the-scenes shots accompany concept sketches as they paint a picture of the film's conception. Another piece, Making the Visual Effects (10:28, SD), showcases before and after shots from the film and how digital effects achieved several pertinent sequences, from the radiant sunset observed by the angels to the simple scene of Seth slicing his thumb. Several Additional Scenes with Optional Commentary by Brad Siberling and Lynzee Klingman also make a reappearance, as well as two music videos: U2's "If God Will Send His Angels", and the Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris". Finally, we've got one Theatrical Trailer (2:04, 16x9 SD).
Note that the Alternate Movie-Only Track with Commentary by Gabriel Yared, the Interviews with Alanis Morrisette and Peter Gabriel, and the other Theatrical Trailers don't appear on this disc.
City of Angels gets a pat on the back for being a tolerable, occasionally affective reimagining of Wim Wenders' brilliant film, clearly designed to be a stripped-down, emotion-heavy take on its philosophical look about the loneliness of immortality and the appeal of humanity's simple pleasures. It's unquestionably less profound than its inspiration and equipped with an unnecessary downer of an ending, though, while intentionally focused on the romance aspect of the original with star power and '90s sensibilities carrying it forward. That said, there's a mildly stirring property to Seth's growing fascination with Maggie and the corporeal world he observes, and it understands how to play up the supernatural love-story angle through endearing performances from Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. Warner Bros.' Blu-ray looks and sound decent, and the carried-over extra features still help one to appreciate the little things achieved in the production. Give it a Rental, but I'd certainly suggest checking out Wings of Desire first.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site