For a movie obsessed with the connection between sexual intercourse and car accidents, David Cronenberg’s Crash could hardly be more stationary. The characters sit in cars, seduce each other in cars, and stare, as if hypnotized, at films of cars. When they speak, it’s in hushed poetic fragments, soliloquizing about such matters as ”the reshaping of the human body by technology.” In Crash, the characters share their obsessions almost telepathically, as if they’d been abducted by the same alien spaceship. And what, exactly, are they obsessed with? Death? Mutilation? The thrill of black vinyl seat covers? Adapted from J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel, Crash establishes its own world, but it’s a world of cryptically morose art-porn postures. The movie is an academic’s idea of ”transgression.” The only thing naked about it is its self-conscious desire to shock.
The hero, James Ballard (James Spader), is a producer of commercials who’s married to a sultry Barbie doll (Deborah Kara Unger). Jaded thrill seekers, they arouse each other with blow-by-blow descriptions of their extramarital liaisons. One night, James, out driving, crashes head-on into the car of Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter). It’s a near-fatal collision — and the most exciting moment of their lives. The two form an erotic bond that centers on their desire to relive the accident. James also makes the acquaintance of Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a performance artist who restages the high-speed deaths of celebrities like Jayne Mansfield. A scarred priest of erotic violence, he is, in effect, rehearsing his own death. The kinky circle is completed by Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), a crippled car-crash victim who wears fishnets under her leg braces and sports skin wounds that look like vaginas.
Cronenberg wants us to view these people as bold avatars of a new, godless age, one that mingles technology, destruction, and flesh. The folly of Crash is that he’s so intent on locking the characters into their death-trip fetishism that he locks the audience out. You could blame the bloodless monotony of Crash on Cronenberg’s portentous staging, which reduces his actors to glazed auto-erotomatons, or you could blame it on the difficulties of adapting Ballard’s novel, a bad-vibe hallucination in which the author’s surreal ramblings take precedence over drama. The truth, though, is far more basic: As much as Crash would have you believe it, there simply is no link between eroticism and car crashes. The theme is utterly preposterous (if undeniably attention getting). By exploiting it for ”controversy,” Cronenberg has made not the riskiest movie of his career but the phoniest.