Technology and sexuality meet in a head-on collision in Crash – director David Cronenberg’s controversial adaptation of writer J.G. Ballard’s hugely transgressive 1973 novel starring James Spader and Holly Hunter.
Spader stars as James Ballard, a film producer whose deviant sexual desires are awakened by a near fatal automobile accident with Dr Helen Remington (Hunter). Soon the pair, alongside Ballard’s wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), are drawn into an underground world of car crash fetishism presided over by renegade scientist Vaughan (Elias Koteas). Danger, sex and death become entwined as eroticism and technology join together in a disturbing, deadly union.
Awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival for originality, daring and audacity, Crash remains an incredibly subversive and confrontational piece of cinema – Cronenberg himself describes it as “a dangerous film” – now newly refurbished in a stunning 4K restoration.
Arrow Video presents David Cronenberg’s Crash on 4K UHD Blu-ray, presenting the film on a triple-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Arrow is using the same 4K restoration that Criterion is using for their North American Blu-ray edition, which was sourced from the original camera negative. The film is encoded here at 2160p/24hz with HDR10. Though this is a UK release, the format doesn’t have any region codes (or isn’t supposed to) and this disc should play without issue on North American players (it played fine on mine).
I was impressed with Criterion’s high-def presentation (outside of opening banding issues), which really did wonders on the look of the film, washing away my two-decade-old memories of a dreary, ugly looking film. I didn’t expect too significant an upgrade over that Blu-ray with the UHD presentation, but much to my shock there is a noticeable, even significant upgrade over Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation.
One of the big upgrades is the rendering of the film’s grain. The Criterion’s presentation is more than adequate, but it comes off looking more natural and clearer here, with the image coming off far sharper because of it. Black levels are also a bit richer, and some of the brighter colours have more of a pop.
There is a slightly different look overall to the film, in comparison to the Criterion at least, and it could come down to the HDR aspect. The film’s colour scheme is generally cold, with some great pops of red and purple here and there (looking noticeably better here in comparison to the Criterion), but the primary colours are more along the lines of blues and cold grays. There is what I can only call a subtle murkiness to the image at times, or what could also be classified as just a darker looking image. It doesn’t blur the picture, and it doesn’t impact the blacks or the shadow details, but it’s almost like a desaturation. Yet the blues and reds still manage to stick out.
The improved dynamic range also does wonders for many of the nighttime car sequences, with headlights beaming bright and the highlights of the car bodies sticking out more. Red lights and the like also add more of a punch. This all looks especially good in the rain.
Damage is still not much of an issue, just a few minor blemishes popping up, and again the image is razor sharp. I also didn’t notice any digital issues: the banding found on the Criterion’s opening credits is nowhere to be found here. The final grade for the picture is going to ultimately be the same in comparison to the Criterion, just because the different formats and their abilities are taken into account, but when it’s all said and done, Arrow’s 4K presentation is a big step up over Criterion’s already solid high-def one.
Arrow includes two DTS-HD MA audio tracks: the original 2.0 stereo surround one and the 5.1 remix. I only listened to the 5.1 track and didn’t find any difference between the presentation found on the Criterion. Out of laziness, I’m copying what I wrote for the Criterion edition here:
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.
Criterion’s edition is generally fine, delivering a solid high-def presentation while porting over their LaserDisc commentary featuring the director, but the biggest disappointment is that they didn’t produce any new material for their edition, outside of a new essay. Arrow’s edition makes up for that and goes all-out with the special features for their edition, packing it to the gills. All video features, unless otherwise stated, are presented in 1080p/24hz.
Sadly, the biggest drawback to Arrow’s edition is that they were unable to get Criterion’s director commentary, which is one I would consider well worth tracking down. To make up for it, though, Arrow instead includes an excellent scholarly commentary track featuring Adrian Martin. In his track, Martin does touch on the subjects Cronenberg does, from what attracted the filmmaker to the material to how the sex scenes are composed (not stimulating, almost medical in nature). He also talks about the controversies surrounding the film, what he feels dismissive critics missed at the time, and clarifies what he feels are misunderstandings people have had with the material. He also references Ballard’s novel and his other work throughout the track, even quoting from the novel where appropriate, and he even goes over subplots dropped and other areas that were changed. Getting the first-hand details around the film from Cronenberg himself was something I appreciated and found invaluable, but Martin is more than up to the challenge and I think the track will prove worthwhile for those unsure on the film.
Arrow has also recorded a number of new interviews for this edition, including ones featuring director of photography Peter Suschitzky (around 20-minutes), producer Jeremy Thomas (around 17-minutes), composer Howard Shore (around 23-minutes), and even casting director Deirdre Bowen (around 27-minutes). All of them touch on how they first came to work with Cronenberg and go over some of their other work with the filmmaker (Bowen talks about a number of other films, including those with Viggo Mortensen’s), but the interviews do focus heavily on Crash. Suschitzky and Shore talk about getting the right look and sound for the film, with Shore explaining how he was able to be more experimental with this film because of his previous work with Cronenberg, and he even gets into specifics about the instruments and compositions. Thomas talks about the genesis of the project, which he suggested to Cronenberg while making Naked Lunch, before talking about what has drawn him to Ballard’s work (he was also behind the adaptation of “High Rise”). Bowen’s, as mentioned prior, is more career spanning, but it was a little surprising to hear that casting Crash wasn’t all that difficult.
Arrow’s edition then includes archival promotional material in the way of 11-minutes’ worth of behind-the-scenes footage and archival interviews with Cronenberg, Thomas, Ballard, producer Robert Lantos, and then actors James Spader, Holly Hunter, Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas and Rosanna Arquette, each running a few minutes or so. What we appear to be getting here is the unedited raw footage that was shot for promotional purposes, and was used for the “press-kit” New Line edited together for their marketing and what is presented on Criterion’s disc. That press kit ran over 9-minutes so there is significantly more footage here overall, but I can’t say it adds much more as it’s just general discussion about the film and story, all for promotional reasons.
An interesting addition is footage from a post-screening Q&A from the TIFF in 2019 featuring Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen. As it turns out, Mortensen was welcome to go through their film library and pick a couple of films to show, two films he admires. He ended up picking Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and then Cronenberg’s Crash, and the actor explains his reasons for selecting the latter film, feeling it’s a film that just presents characters that live a certain way without moralizing. Cronenberg reflects on the film, seeing it a new light now (he mentions he laughs at it now because the “characters are crazy!”) and he actually gets a little more into how he was initially turned off by the book, finding it repulsive, too medical, and without humour. The two also venture out from Crash to talk about their work together, and the audience throws a random Lord of the Rings question at Mortensen. This ends up being a great reflection on the film so many years later, and I also love that we get the two together to talk a little about the films they did together. It runs 52-minutes.
Arrow does manage to present one feature found on the Criterion edition (outside of the trailers and the similar press footage): the 102-minute Q&A from 1996 featuring Cronenberg and J.G. 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 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.
Arrow also offers a new video essay by Caelum Vatnsdal called Architect of Pain. Running 14-minutes, Vatnsdal looks at how Cronenberg uses the unique locations and buildings found in places like Toronto and Montreal (from row houses to Gardiner Expressway) to maximum effect. He even looks at his unique use of cars in not only Crash but also Cosmopolis.
This edition also presents a fairly impressive collection of short films around the filmmaker and the source novel. The 18-minute Crash! is inspired by Ballard’s “The Atrocity Exhibition” and was filmed a couple of years before the novel “Crash” was released. It’s an odd experimental film featuring Ballard (who also narrates), and it’s a sort of ode to the automobile that isn’t so much a tool but an extension of those who drive it. Though it’s not explicit it’s still very sexual, fetishizing the technology and the crashes they can cause.
Following that is the 33-minute Nightmare Angel, which is more of a straight adaptation of the novel “Crash” with “The Atrocity Exhibition” thrown in for good measure (apparently, as I haven't read it). The story is generally the same as Cronenberg’s full-length feature (with some name changes, like Vaughan is now de Fries), but what I found so fascinating is how key scenes from the 1986 black-and-white film play out in comparison to Cronenberg’s. It’s not so much that they’re similar but you can tell Cronenberg and this film’s director, Zoe Beloff, were drawn to them. Interestingly, this film keeps a subplot around how Vaughan/de Fries wants to get into a car crash with Elizabeth Taylor, which was the one thing Ballard was disappointed Cronenberg dropped in his adaptation.
There is then the film called Always (Crashing), which I’ll just come out and admit I was completely bewildered by: the 19-minute abstract short, apparently inspired by Ballard’s novel, literally features a car driving through a parking garage slowly while random text is thrown up on screen, I guess showing the isolation of man or whatever.
Arrow then includes two shorts by Cronenberg, which aren’t his best, but they’re more interesting than Always (Crashing). First is the 9-minute The Nest (which is presented in 1080i/60hz), featuring a POV shot (from the perspective of a doctor voiced by Cronenberg) of a topless Évelyne Brochu explaining how she wants her left breast removed because she’s convinced there’s a nest of insects in there. Filmed in what I can only assume is Cronenberg’s garage (there is a car charger in the background) it’s an odd film, though it manages to be unnerving despite the lack of any of the actual body-horror I admit I was expecting. The second film is the 4-minute At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World, featuring Cronenberg as a former filmmaker getting ready to end it all as two unseen commentators offer a play-by-play of the events. I'm actually not at all sure what to make of that one.
The disc then closes with the same trailers found on the Criterion edition: the red band American trailer and the Canadian trailer, the latter of which looks to have been restored (Criterion pulled theirs from a video source).
Arrow’s limited edition, which packs everything into a nice, sturdy slip, also provides a double-sided foldout poster featuring Arrow’s new artwork on one side and an original poster on the other, along with a 58-page booklet. The booklet features an essay on the film by Vanessa Morgan, which is then followed by an excerpt from an expanded edition of “Cronenberg on Cronenberg,” featuring the director discussing Crash. Araceli Molina then provides a short essay around Ballard and the novel “Crash,” and then two essays around two of the short films in the set, Crash! and Nightmare Angel, the latter by the film’s director, Zoe Beloff, the former by Jason Wood.
Though everything isn’t perfect, Arrow’s edition manages to provide a far more satisfying collection of material in comparison to Criterion’s release. It provides some solid material around the film’s release, other works inspired by Ballard’s writing, and wonderful new material reflecting on the film more than two decades later.
Arrow’s 4K UHD bests Criterion’s Blu-ray in just about all departments, from video to supplementary material. It’s a far more satisfying edition and the one I would go with.