For this icily erotic fusion of flesh and machine, David Cronenberg adapted J. G. Ballard’s future-shock novel of the 1970s into one of the most singular and provocative films of the 1990s. A traffic collision involving a disaffected commercial producer, James (James Spader), and an enigmatic doctor, Helen (Holly Hunter), brings them, along with James’s wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger, in a sublimely detached performance), together in a crucible of blood and broken glass—and it’s not long before they are all initiated into a kinky, death-obsessed underworld of sadomasochistic car-crash fetishists for whom twisted metal and scar tissue are the ultimate turn-ons. Controversial from the moment it premiered at Cannes—where it won a Special Jury Prize “for originality, for daring, and for audacity”—Crash has since taken its place as a key text of late-twentieth-century cinema, a disturbingly seductive treatise on the relationships between humanity and technology, sex and violence, that is as unsettling as it is mesmerizing.
David Cronenberg’s Crash makes its way back into the Criterion Collection with a brand-new Blu-ray edition. Presented on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1, the 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration, scanned from the original camera negative.
It's been a long while since I had seen the film (I had seen it on VHS and then the New Line DVD way back) but I recall the previous home video releases being fairly lackluster and unimpressive, a look that I guess I attributed more to the film itself. This new restoration gives the film a cleaner, crisper, and I'd dare say more vibrant look. The film is dark, a good chunk of it taking place at night, but there are a lot of lights and bright highlights on objects in these scenes and they look incredible here. Colours are also very striking, with reds and purples popping (Spader's purple pajamas in one scene looking great), and blacks are deep while still allowing for subtle shadow details. This is a completely different looking film from what I recall.
The restoration work looks to have cleaned up just about every bit of damage, though there are a handful of tiny marks that show up here and there. The digital presentation itself is pretty clean, rendering grain perfectly, which in turn leads to sharp details and a crisp image. The opening credits do present some subtle banding effects, which I initially attributed to the original computer-generated graphics for the credits, but Arrow’s 4K UHD doesn’t show the same effect at all, so I’m going to have to blame it on an encoding issue.
All said and done, any slight hiccups aside, this ended up being a real revelation in the end. This is a whole different film than what I remember.
Between Howard Shore’s experimental score, revving engines, and car crashes, the 5.1 surround presentation gets a lot to do. Dialogue is primarily focused to the fronts and it sounds crisp and clean, no issues at all. Shore’s score is pushed around the viewer with decent bass when needed, but the standout moments all revolve around cars in one way or another. The crashes in particular are very loud, with subtle effects thrown in, like sprinkling glass falling around the viewer. A couple of scenes that you could call “car chases” also deliver a dynamic sound field as cars zoom and engines accelerate, and sequence in a car wash gets creative with the mix as well.
It all comes together to create a very dynamic and engrossing experience.
After receiving a LaserDisc edition from Criterion in 1997, it’s one that many hoped Criterion would see fit to port over to DVD and/or Blu-ray eventually, and, over 23 years later, ta-da! Sadly, the features end up being a bit deflating after the long wait.
At the very least Criterion does port of their audio commentary featuring Cronenberg, which I would say is essential. He gets into what drew him to the material (when he finally decided to make it, as he was initially not so sure) and talks about various technical details around the film, from creating and capturing the crash injuries appropriately, to getting the car crashes themselves just right without making them an action film cliché. He covers casting (stating he casts Canadians where he can), how he choreographs scenes with the actors, and he even gets into the film’s controversy, which would have still been fresh in his mind at the time he recorded the track (he mentions Q&A he had done with Ballard along with the Cannes conference when talking about the controversy, with video from both included as features).
The track’s at its best, though, when Cronenberg talks about the nature of adapting a book like “Crash,” which is all about the psychology of its characters. The book has the advantage of spelling everything out in the text, but on film, capturing the psychology can be hard, short of having someone straight-out explaining (he mentions Danielle Steele books will always be better at covering the inner thoughts of a character in comparison to what Fellini could ever do in a film). This leads him to talk about how he aimed to bring this aspect to the screen and convey it visually. It’s a great director’s track and I’m pleased to see it’s been saved from the LaserDisc edition.
The rest of the material is unfortunately all archival, with nothing new being created for this edition. First off is the 102-minute 1996 Q&A featuring Cronenberg and Ballard at the National Film Theatre, London. Hosted by Chris Rodley, the discussion opens around the controversy circling the film (a film Ballard calls "brilliant") and even though Cronenberg doesn’t want to get into the press’ involvement directly, they still get into Ted Turner’s reaction and what aspects of the film drew the ire of a lot of its critics. This spans out—eventually—to discussion around other controversial films that had negative reactions, like Peeping Tom. Cronenberg then gets a little into the adaptation, why he dropped certain elements (Ballard was annoyed the film dropped a subplot around Elizabeth Taylor) and why he avoided using a voice over. It’s a great little discussion, especially beneficial (when paired with the commentary) if one is not all that familiar with the source novel.
The Cannes press conference is also here. Running 38-minutes (and a good chunk of that is just going through the introductions) and the questions from the press aren’t all as bad as I thought they would be, and the one Cronenberg mentions in the commentary (and in the Ballard feature) about how the film doesn’t go far enough gets asked here. A couple of questions, like why there isn’t more full-frontal male nudity, gets interesting answers.
Closing off the disc are the American red band and Canadian/International trailers followed by 9-minutes’ worth of press-kit footage put together by New Line for the film’s release. It features some behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Cronenberg, Ballard, producers Robert Lantos and Jeremy Thomas, and actors James Spader, Holly Hunter, Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas and Rosanna Arquette. I believe these last few items were also available on the LaserDisc edition.
The included poster insert then features an essay on the film, written by Jessica Kiang, who also mentions Ballard’s appearance in the 1971 short Crash!, which is not included here but found on Arrow’s edition.
Though the commentary is great, and the archival conferences are good additions, the lack of any new material (outside of the essay) is a rather big and disappointing surprise.
Criterion’s special edition leaves one wanting when it comes to special features, but the brand new restoration and high-def presentation does wonders for the film.