Directed and written by David Cronenberg, from the novel by J.G. Ballard. Starring James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Deborah Kara Unger, and Rosanna Arquette. At the Metro in San Francisco and the California in Berkeley.

Cult auteur David Cronenberg crashes and burns -- his talent, that is -- in Crash, a vain attempt at a techno-age Persona. It follows a demented explorer named Vaughan (Elias Koteas) into an insane new world where twisted metal, curvy skin, automotive oil, and bodily fluids merge in an explosive carnal cocktail. To Vaughan, car crashes are psychosexual fusion bombs, releasing waves of libidinal energies from the victims and their vehicles. His vision may sound silly to us, but it inflames the already-wayward ids of a TV-commercial producer, James Ballard (James Spader); Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), Ballard's partner in a perverse open marriage; and Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), who bonds with Ballard after he loses control of his car and rams into hers, killing her husband.

The film is based on the 1973 cult novel by visionary British novelist J.G. Ballard, who in a burst of self-lacerating bravado named the producer character (and narrator) after himself. It would appear to be a perfect fit for Canadian writer/producer/director Cronenberg, a sometime master of quease-in-art who specializes in tormenting the flesh. What's most impressive about Ballard is his precise and evocative prose: It ranges from warped sensuality ("the sheen on overpolished vinyl reflecting the soft belly of a stomach or a thigh") to magisterial sadism ("The man, a chemical engineer with an American foodstuffs company, was killed instantly, propelled through his windshield like a mattress from the barrel of a circus cannon"). I awaited Cronenberg's translation of Ballard's charged poetic style -- to debase Wordsworth, "the febrile recollected in tranquillity" -- with a mixture of dread and anticipation.

But Crash the film turns out to be another of Cronenberg's static, self-important art duds, much worse than his wildly overrated Dead Ringers. (This is one underground director who generally improves when he surfaces into the mainstream, as in his 1983 The Dead Zone and his 1986 The Fly.) Cronenberg settles for putting Ballard's dark fantasia on-screen coolly and simply, with its profuse promiscuity intact. It's a rank miscalculation. Without some cinematic sizzle burning away the distance between the viewers and the scarred menagerie of lovers and fiends, the dramatis personae become personae non grata. With their motivations -- even their sensations -- left somewhere in the stage directions, the actors succumb to zombiehood. Rather than share their outre thoughts, we doubt whether there's anything behind their bug-eyed intensity. And when they enact one anal or rear-entry coupling after another (both hetero- and homosexual), usually in their cars, the scenes would be snicker-worthy if the tone weren't so solemn. Stripped of the book's hallucinatory aura, the rough sex becomes thudding wrong-way slapstick. You begin to yearn for something unusual -- like, say, the missionary position.

If Crash proves anything, it's that one person's sexual obsession is another person's comedy routine. When Helen gyrates on top of Ballard in the driver's seat of a car, you don't think, "Far out!"; you think, "When did they disconnect the horn?" And when Ballard drives through a carwash as Vaughan and Ballard's wife make love in the back seat it goes on so long you figure the attendant enjoyed the spectacle and let them pass through twice.

With red-light-running reaching epidemic proportions, a movie so specific about the adrenalin rush motorists get from flirting with disaster might at least have some "gotta-see" allure. But Cronenberg's film fails to eroticize its vehicles even as much as David Lynch does in Lost Highway; Robert Loggia's diatribe against tailgating in Lynch's enraging, uneven film has more force, humor, and sexuality than anything in Crash. In the novel, Ballard treats Vaughan's contorted sex acts and re-enactments of famous accidents as a horrific route to transcendence ("These unions of torn genitalia and sections of car body and instrument panel formed a series of disturbing modules, units in a new currency of pain and desire"). But Cronenberg does little more than illustrate Ballard's concepts and speechify about them.

Reading the script, just published by Faber and Faber, is fascinating, because it clarifies the gap between what Cronenberg thought he was doing and what he did. The revelations occur in the notes between the dialogue. Watching Spader's Ballard look down at the traffic from his apartment's balcony, I did feel as if the image were, in the script's words, an "immense motion sculpture, this incomprehensible pinball machine." (The reliable Peter Suschitzky did the cinematography.) But in the bulk of the scenes, Cronenberg doesn't bring to life his own descriptions. In another one of the film's unholy trysts, Vaughan makes it in his back seat with a whore while Ballard, driving, watches from the rearview mirror: Ballard, Cronenberg writes, "realizes that he can almost control the sexual act behind him by the way in which he drives the car. It is, in that sense, a sexual threesome -- or, more properly, a foursome, because the sex between Vaughan and the whore takes place in the hooded grottoes of the luminescent dials, surging needles, and blinking lights of the black, brooding Lincoln." Unfortunately, the sense of threesomeness and foursomeness, the poetic reality of the "hooded grottoes" of the "brooding Lincoln," never registers in the dank peep-show antics of the finished movie.

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