Introduction to Crash (Cronenberg, 1996) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster, 26/11/07

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University, UK)

(This is the introductory public talk I gave for the screening of this film in connection with a Lancaster University seminar series, ‘New Sciences of Protection: Designing Safe Living’) 


Crash is the 1996 film adaptation of a 1973 novel by British writer JG Ballard. It was directed and adapted for the screen by Canadian director David Cronenberg who is a particularly appropriate director as his films share Ballard’s preoccupation with the way identity and experience is shaped by modern technological society. His films are also marked by an impassivity and formal restraint that neatly parallels the emotional coolness of Ballard’s writing.

JG Ballard is perhaps best known as a science fiction writer, however the books he writes are clearly distinct from conventional generic SF. They are not concerned with heroic space travel and other worlds, or with distant futures, but with what he terms ‘inner space’ – the point where the mind and external reality intersect in confusing and ambiguous ways. In this respect, his writing is very influenced by surrealism, which in turn was closely informed by psychoanalysis.

Although Crash is not set in an alternative reality – the film is shot and set in present-day Toronto – it is helpful to understand it in terms of the category of science fiction – it is concerned precisely with the ways that technology is incorporated into our lives, and with thinking through the consequences of this incorporation – how it changes the way we interact with one another, how it changes the way we see ourselves.

The value of science fiction for Ballard is that in imagining future worlds and other spaces it offers a metaphorical account of contemporary reality. Science fiction takes significant details of contemporary reality and exaggerates them, and so it gives us an extreme, excessive, distorted picture of ourselves, emphasizing elements and tendencies that might otherwise be unnoticeable because they are so familiar and mundane. We are surrounded by cyborgs – with atomic pacemakers, titanium joints, pins and plates, plastic heart valves and prosthetic limbs – but in its images of robotic killing machines, science fiction attempts to estrange us from this everyday reality, to make us see it differently, and to reflect upon the radical transformations that have been introduced into our lives by technological change. As Ballard puts it, ‘However crudely or naively, science fiction at least attempts to place a philosophical and metaphysical frame around the most important events within our lives and our consciousnesses’ (Ballard 1985: 6).

A good example of this is David Cronenberg’s 1983 film, Videodrome, a science fiction-horror hybrid that is about the way that television alters our perception of reality. The film focuses on a sleazy television executive who becomes fixated upon a pornographic satellite channel called Videodrome, which appears to show real people being tortured and murdered. It transpires that the programme broadcasts a signal that causes fatal brain tumours in its viewers and as the film progresses, the executive becomes steadily more confused about the boundaries between the real world and the world on the TV screen, experiencing more and more vivid and frequent hallucinations. By the film’s culmination he has begun to merge with the machinery around him, inserting videotapes into a slot in his stomach his hand fusing with a revolver that he stores in his stomach and the film climaxes with his suicide. Cronenberg’s film is a gruesome cautionary tale about the effects of communications media on our experience of the world. It takes an aspect of contemporary life – concerns about the ubiquity of television – and exaggerates, distorts and amplifies this familiar anxiety until it becomes horrific and satirical.

What this means for Ballard is that, in its capacity to home in on areas of our lives that escape the attention of more conventional film and literature, science fiction is the only genre that is equipped to discuss and represent contemporary reality. The defining feature of contemporary reality, he suggests, is the ‘death of affect’: the death of our ability to feel. Whereas much science fiction is optimistic or technophilic – a celebration of the ways in which our lives are being expanded through technological advances, both Ballard and Cronenberg are moralists, holding up warning signs, asking us to beware of the accident ahead. Ballard has written that Crash is ‘an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation, a kit of desperate measures only for use in an extreme crisis’ (Ibid.: 9).

For example, like much of their other work the film is about western post-industrial consumer society in which we have been seduced by the promise of new, intense erotic gratifications, but in reality have found ourselves living increasingly alienated, anaesthetized lives, in which our communication with each other is increasingly mediated and impersonal. In reaction to this monotonous, complacent, risk-averse and infantilizing social context, the characters in Crash become fascinated by car crashes.

Cars have a particularly close relationship with cinema. The crime writer Elmore Leonard has suggested, for example, that a car chase is unrepresentable in any other medium – you can’t write a car chase. Automobiles appear at exactly the same time as cinema – the late 1880s, and there are clear parallels between the experience offered by the two technologies – speed, exhilaration, the sensation of movement, the novelty and visual spectacle of brand new technology, the possibility to travel to other places. Ballard has also said in an interview that ‘the key image of the 20th century is the man in the motor car. It sums everything up’.

One of the most challenging conceptual premises of Crash is that car crashes aren’t accidents, but instead that on some level we want to crash. We crash our cars deliberately. As Ballard, who was in a serious car accident in the 1960s, puts it, the book ‘is not concerned with an imaginary disaster, however imminent, but with a pandemic cataclysm institutionalized in all industrial societies that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions’ (Ibid.: 9). If we were really afraid of car crashes, he suggested in a BBC TV programme in 1971 we’d never be able to get into a car. So, what Crash explores is the question of why, in the face of this ongoing slaughter on the roads, we continue to drive, continue to put ourselves at risk of death and injury. This might seem to be utterly irrational but Crash is interested in the irrational logic that drives us to continue putting ourselves in danger in this way. What the film is driving at is the idea that in the context of a technologically sophisticated, comfortable, alienated and reified life in the west, a society characterized by the death of affect – the car crash is a rare moment of intensity. In a society in which we can no longer feel, and can no longer experience events authentically, in which every experience is packaged and commodified and made safe, the car crash is an event that tears a hole through the uniform and perfect surface of our simulated lives, exposing us briefly to the horror of reality – to death, pain and feeling.

As Ballard put it in 1971, ‘The car-crash is the most dramatic event in most people’s lives, apart from their own deaths, and in many cases, the two will coincide. Are we just victims in a totally meaningless tragedy, or does it in fact take place with our unconscious, even conscious contrivance?’

When the film was released in Britain there was a brief and predictable controversy over the decision by one or two local councils to ban the film on the grounds that, to quote the film reviewer from the Daily Mail, it eroticizes sado-masochism and orthopaedic fetishism. I think that this is a misunderstanding of what the film attempts to do. It is entirely correct that this is a film about perversity and fetishism in its preoccupation with wounded and disabled bodies, for example, but it is far from a celebration of perversity – it depicts fetishistic desire, and the erotic fascination we have with car crashes, but it doesn’t depict them in an erotic way. One of the central attractions of mainstream cinema is the thrilling, visceral, eroticized spectacle of death and destruction – collapsing buildings, motorway pile-ups, terrorist atrocities, exploding space-ships, luxury cruise liners sinking, the slaughter of the battlefield. Rapid editing, hyper-kinetic cinematography, melodramatic performances, dynamic music, vivid colours and elaborate special effects all contribute to the exciting rush of action sequences in Hollywood films.

By contrast, although it shows some extreme behaviour and situations, and a great deal of sex, Cronenberg’s film is stylistically very restrained and, I would suggest, is quite emotionally unengaging. It is more likely to leave you cold than to arouse you. The performances are consistently inexpressive, and with the exception of several point-of-view shots from crashing cars, camera movements are generally slow and smooth. The editing is also slow, and the film’s colour scheme is muted and limited; the shots are dominated by greys and blues and bruise-coloured pinks, purples, browns and dark reds, with very few bright colours. Daytime scenes are lit with a cold, soft, wintry light and the night scenes are lit with neon or sodium lights. The music is also sombre and uncomfortable.

Thus, the film can best be understood, then, as belonging to a satirical, cautionary tradition of science fiction and fantasy film and literature that extends back to Jonathan Swift.


JG Ballard (1975) ‘Introduction to the French edition of Crash (1974)in Crash London: Panther

Crash!, Harley Cokliss, 1971. BBC TV