When producer Dawn Steel saw potential to pursue more story ideas in Wenders' original concept, she and her husband Charles Roven acquired the rights for an English-language adaptation. After years of delay, they found support from Warner Bros. and recruited Silberling and screenwriter Dana Stevens to execute the project. Themes were borrowed from Wenders' work, though the ending was altered, to a more tragic effect. City of Angels was filmed around California and dedicated to Steel, who died before the premiere.
The remake was released to financial success, but mixed reviews, with a few critics judging it to be a mawkish adaptation. It was also noted for its soundtrack, and nominated for several awards, particularly for its performances and soundtrack.
In Los Angeles, California, Seth is one of many angels who watch over humans and protect them in unseen ways. Seth's main responsibility is to appear to those who are close to death and guide them to the next life. As part of this task, Seth and one of his fellow angels, Cassiel, like to ask people what their favorite thing in life was. Despite these daily encounters, they have trouble understanding human beings and their ways.
While waiting to escort a man undergoing heart surgery to the other world, Seth is impressed by the vigorous efforts of the surgeon, Maggie Rice, to save the ill-fated man's life and her sincere anguish at her failure to do so. Seth soon becomes preoccupied with Maggie and decides to become visible to her. They develop a friendship which soon turns to mutual attraction, although Maggie is already involved with one of her colleagues, Jordan Ferris. Seth then meets Nathaniel Messinger, one of Maggie's patients, who can sense Seth's presence and that of other angels. Nathaniel soon relates to Seth that he, too, had once been an angel but, by way of the free will granted equally to mortals and angels, decided to become human through the process he refers to as "falling". Seth begins to consider exercising this option so that he can be with Maggie, and she learns he is an angel.
Seth decides to become human through the symbolic gesture of jumping from the top of a skyscraper. Immediately upon awakening, he starts to experience all of the human feelings and sensations that he had never been able to understand, beginning with physical injury and pain. Now human, Seth heads to the hospital to see Maggie, but is told that she has gone to her uncle's mountain cabin for a break. Penniless and naïve, he cannot pay for the journey and ends up getting mugged. He eventually hitches a ride to Lake Tahoe and appears, soaked and cold, at Maggie's doorstep. Maggie realizes that he has given up his angelic status for her love, and they have sex. The next morning, as Seth is in the shower, Maggie rides her bicycle to a local store. On her way back, happy and fulfilled, she rides her bicycle with her eyes closed and her arms wide open. Her happiness is cut short by a truck that catches her by surprise when it pulls out in front of her. Seth senses that Maggie is in trouble and runs to her aid. He arrives in time for Maggie to tell him that she sees the angel who has come to escort her away. Although Seth is no longer able to see the angels, he knows they are there and frantically begs Maggie not to look at them. Maggie tells him that she is not afraid anymore and that when they will ask her what her favorite thing in life used to be, she will say it was Seth, before she dies.
Grieving and alone, Seth is visited by Cassiel. Seth questions if he is being punished for leaving heaven to be a human, which Cassiel assures him is not the case. Some time later, Seth expresses his joy in being human and the fact that he has come to terms with his new life by running into the ocean and feeling the waves.
City of Angels invokes the idea of the fallen angel in Seth's transformation into a human. However, author Scott Culpepper argues this is not related to evil or exile from heaven, and is instead based on free will. The fact that Maggie is killed very shortly after Seth's transformation poses the question of whether Seth left "heaven for ashes", but the conclusion is that "the very temporality of relationships, experiences and feelings are what are what make them meaningful". Seth's realization is followed by the concluding scene in which he dives into the ocean, and the otherwise "stoic" Cassiel smiles for him. Sociologists Albert Bergesen and Andrew Greeley write this communicates "not only the glory of being alive ... but the seeming approval by heaven of that choice".
Writer Brian Godawa interprets the film as having a "humanistic worldview" in which "physical humanity" outranks the spiritual, but feels this contradicts 1 Peter 1:12, where "things which angels desire to look into" are in the gospel of the "Holy Spirit". Encyclopedist Andrew Tate writes Maggie is a surgeon with no spiritual faith and, through Seth, she "learns to trust the invisible", while Seth learns the wonders of life through her.
Tate believes the fact that the angels reside in the library indicates they represent "an age of reason, order and learning", though these principles led to decline in faith, contemplating Nathaniel's line "They don't believe in us anymore". Professor Christopher R. Miller questions the "no one believes" line, pointing to 1998 New Age book sales, the play Angels in America and the television series Touched by an Angel. Miller contrasts Seth's book choice of Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast to John Milton's Paradise Lost, where "angels were matter and spirit" and "sybaritic show-offs".
On the choice of Los Angeles as a setting, Gabriel Solomons contrasts the depiction of the city as door to heaven to other films depicting it as "psychological dead end" or actual hell (as in Constantine). However, Professor Jeff Malpas says that, whereas Der Himmel über Berlin was informed by Berlin, Los Angeles, sometimes known in real life as the "City of Angels", "provides nothing more than a convenient location".
Director Brad Silberling praised Wim Wenders' 1987 German film Wings of Desire, calling it "truly the most incredible cinematic experience of observation of human detail". Silberling, while acknowledging Wenders' film was meant as a tribute to West Berlin, remarked that it became "a larger human discussion". In 1989, at the initiative of producer Dawn Steel, her company reached out to Wenders to purchase the rights. However, production was delayed, as Steel took the project to The Walt Disney Company and Turner Entertainment before finally settling at Warner Bros. Silberling secured the position of director after his success with the 1995 film adaptation of Casper.
While Steel's husband Charles Roven said she "felt that there was another movie in the idea for Wings of Desire", screenplay drafts by various authors dissatisfied her. She subsequently selected Dana Stevens as screenwriter. Stevens professed admiration for Wenders' original and believed she could "capture its essence", while reconsidering its nonlinear narrative. She also defended the California setting, saying "Los Angeles is metaphorically more representative of America than any other city ... It has every personality, and I like the idea of angels being among all these different ethnic cultures".
Star Nicolas Cage said that moving the setting from Berlin in the time of the Wall to Los Angeles demanded story changes, with heavier focus on romance. Silberling and Cage noted the project followed other angel-themed films, such as Michael and The Preacher's Wife, both released in 1996. They were unimpressed with these earlier films, and drew angel wings in the City of Angels screenplay to identify parts they felt needed improvement.
Though Silberling did not use the black-and-white the angels see in the original Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close!, the remake does borrow the idea of angels inhabiting libraries. Wenders and his crew also developed the costume design of overcoats for angels, with Wenders telling Silberling they experimented with costumes during production before deciding on this look. The ending of the story was altered, so Maggie is killed, a less happy conclusion than the original. Silberling equated this to a scene in Wings of Desire where the angel protagonist goes to the side of a motorcyclist near death.
Silberling claimed there was minimal Warner supervision throughout writing and filming, due to priority given to the Batman film franchise. City of Angels was the last film produced by Steel and Roven before her death, and it is dedicated to her.
Originally, Silberling envisioned employing novice actors in the lead roles, but acknowledged performers with the level of recognition of Cage and Meg Ryan would attract support for the production. After having completed action-oriented roles in The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off, Cage was eager to star in a more profound film when he received Stevens' screenplay. He agreed to accept the role, noting the spiritual issues in the story and the impact it had on him, but not elaborating on his own beliefs. Ryan also agreed to accept the role of Maggie, remarking "I don't know if angels are floating around, but the idea that there's a guiding force is something I embrace".
Andre Braugher, an actor on the television series Homicide: Life on the Street, was able to work on the project while Homicide was on break before the beginning of its sixth season. His new co-star Dennis Franz was also starring on the series NYPD Blue.
Cage said that with this role, he had to switch from his regular methods of constant movements to trying to be "effective" while often still. He remarked on having to adopt the mindset of a child, and act impressed by commonplace experiences such as feeling rain or sunlight. A rig for the camera was built for the scene where the angelic Seth sees Maggie look in the mirror, and the crew shot the mirror without the actors for one take so Cage's reflection could be edited out from the take with both.
Other special effects involved a "going to the light" afterlife depiction, in which Seth walks with a little girl, played by Sarah Dampf, who has died. After cinematographer John Seale shot the scene in a hallway, Sony Pictures Imageworks' John Nelson increased the brightness to end in white, adding splinters of light.
Some of the film was shot at Lake Tahoe's surrounding areas and Kern County. The "falling" scene was partially shot at the Los Angeles Bank of America, while Cage was placed on a moving rig over a bluescreen. Ryan's death scene was filmed on Old Mill Road in Crestline, California. The library scenes were shot at San Francisco Public Library. For angel scenes shot at Malibu Beach, it was decided that the angels would have footprints to avoid the perception that the sand was too hard to leave imprints. Thus, Nelson erased the footprints soon after they are first seen.
The score was composed by Gabriel Yared, often using three notes to convey ascent. Pop synthesizers, pianos and strings were used for the three-note compositions where the angels observe Los Angeles, where the child in the prologue dies and where Seth experiences Maggie's despair, respectively. Yared also employed violins and celli, sometimes using one to accompany a line of voice-over dialogue and another for follow-up dialogue. Choirs and distant voices reminiscent of Jürgen Knieper's Wings of Desire score can be heard.
The soundtrack debuted at number twenty-three on the Billboard 200 chart on the issue dated April 18, 1998. Its two singles, the Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris" and Alanis Morissette's "Uninvited", were released to U.S. radio in March and were still receiving substantial radio airplay by the following August.
While composing "Iris" for the film, songwriter John Rzeznik described feeling inspired to write the lyrics from the point of view of a character, rather than in his own voice. Music author John Braheny wrote that Rzeznik's composition in "Iris" follows a form where a melody, represented by A, is given AAA repetition, with an added repeating chorus lyric.
In test screenings, Silberling said it had favorable reactions, though with some confused viewers. City of Angels had its debut at Los Angeles' Mann Theatres on April 8, 1998. The screening was held to benefit the Dawn Steel Putting Girls in the Picture Fund, in honor of Steel, who died in December 1997. Silberling, Roven and their stars were in attendance.
The film's wider release in the United States took place during the weekend, distributed by Warner Bros. In 2014, Warner published a Blu-ray in Region A, with audio commentary from Silberling, Roven and Stevens.
The film opened first in the box office, making $16.1 million in its opening weekend. It displaced Lost in Space, which was first in the box office for one week, after overtaking Titanic, first for 15 weeks. Titanic ranked third behind City of Angels and Lost in Space. City of Angels reached the $100 million mark by October 26.
It finished its run after grossing $78,685,114 in North America and $120 million in other territories, for a total of nearly $200 million. Writer Craig Detweiler concluded the remake drew more viewers than the original.
Roger Ebert gave City of Angels three stars, saying Meg Ryan was at her best here, but the film was "more of a formula story" than the original Wings of Desire, and that many of its qualities were lifted from there. The New York Times' Stephen Holden wrote the standard romantic clichés were "sumptuously" displayed, Cage resembled a serial killer more than an angel, and he preferred Ryan. In Variety, Emanuel Levy positively reviewed Cage as "endlessly resourceful" and Ryan as "terrifically engaging". David Denby wrote in New York that unlike Berlin, Los Angeles offers "the sunlit paradise" that does not need an advocate for how nice it is to be alive in. Entertainment Weekly gave it a C, with Owen Gleiberman describing it as "a hymn to sappiness". CNN's Paul Clinton dismissed the remake as a "schmaltzy" and "vapid" version of Wings of Desire. The Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan dismissed it as "a mawkish debasement of its source material", asking "When will Hollywood learn to leave well enough alone?" Wenders was satisfied with the adaptation of his work, remarking, "It's done with respect, with a sense of discovery all its own".
Michael Wilmington gave it two and a half stars in The Chicago Tribune, enjoying the appearance of the film but concluding it feels "forced and mechanically weepy". Writing for Empire, William Thomas credited Silberling for "a fresh eye", but felt the film fell short in "philosophical claptrap". In The Christian Science Monitor, Jennifer Wolcott compared it to Ghost (1990) and Contact (1997) as a U.S. film that could explore religion and love, highlighting Maggie's realization that her life will continue after the death of her blood cells, and that love is more than "a chemical reaction". Sun-Sentinel reviewer Roger Hurlburt praised the acting, direction and "profound" feelings, and advised readers, "don't forget the Kleenex".
In 2012, Time included it in its Top 10 On-Screen Depictions of Heaven list, for its portrayal of the "go toward the light" afterlife experience. In his 2015 Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin gave it two and a half stars, judging it "still intriguing" though losing much of the atmosphere of the original. That year, Indiewire, in reviewing remakes, called City of Angels "a sickly bastardization" of its source material, though remarking Wenders himself was unable to duplicate its success with his 1993 sequel, Faraway, So Close!. In 2017, MSN included it in its 20 All-Time Worst Movie Remakes list, acknowledging it as a financial hit but "a schmaltzy tearjerker" compared to the poetry of the original. The film has a 59% score on Rotten Tomatoes based on 60 reviews, and a 54 on Metacritic based on 22 reviews, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
In anticipation of the 25th Saturn Awards, The Los Angeles Times highlighted Meg Ryan's nomination for Best Actress. Additionally, the soundtrack received nominations at the 41st Grammy Awards.