A woman wakes in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of how she got there. As she's running out of oxygen, she must rebuild her memory to find a way out of her nightmare.
Alexandre Aja’s a French filmmaker who went to Hollywood after the success of his slasher High Tension / Switchblade Romance (2003) and remade The Hills Have Eyes (2006). He found his niche in the horror genre, making the likes of Mirrors (2008), Piranha 3D (2010), Horns (2013), and Crawl (2019), but has now returned to his homeland to produce and direct the sci-fi thriller Oxygen / Oxygène for Netflix.
Oxygen is another of those one-location movies, resembling a futuristic version of Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried (2010), where Ryan Reynolds found himself trapped inside a coffin underground. Here, a young woman (Mélanie Laurent) wakes up inside a medical cryogenics unit, surrounding by computer screens and attached to IVs, having to deal with amnesia and a low oxygen supply. With no idea who she, where she is, or what’s happened, she must piece together her own identity with the help of an artificial intelligence called M.I.L.O (Mathieu Almaric). But with such limited information about herself and her circumstance, it proves frighteningly difficult to get help as the oxygen starts to run out.
This is the type of low-budget movie one would expect a debuting director to use as a calling card, as it relies on a screenplay that milks drama out of a single location, and a lead performance strong enough to hold our attention singlehanded. While there are now many other films that have proven such limitations are no obstacle to greatness, it’s nevertheless odd to see an established director like Aja make something so small-scale this late in his career. Having started life in 2017 as a project with Emily Blunt attached to star, I suspect Oxygen was put into fast turnaround because of COVID-19, as it’s perfect material for conditions where large film crews are a hindrance.
But while Aja’s direction is certainly a blessing in terms of keeping things visually engaging (helped by occasional flashbacks giving us a break from the confinement of the cryo tube), it’s Mélanie Laurent who deserves most of the credit for Oxygen working as well as it does. Her performance is excellent and even overcomes the common use of amnesia to create added drama, which is at least justified once we understand what’s going on. Laurent’s on screen for almost every second and it’s a remarkable feat to keep audiences engaged for 100-minutes, as her only real interactions are with the disembodied voices of a computer and various people she calls for help. (And if you can’t understand French, it’s even more impressive to be watching a subtitled film with such a claustrophobic tone and not feel a little exhausted by the focus required to also keep reading off the screen.)
Does the story takes things in an interesting direction that’s worth the wait? Mileage will vary on that, depending on how keen you are to try and outsmart the story rather than let it sweep you along. If you’re a sci-fi connoisseur, there are perhaps only a few directions the story could go, so Oxygen does end up evoking a few movies you’ll be familiar with by its conclusion. So while there’s nothing here that’s truly mind-blowing and unique, it’s an effectively told sci-fi thriller that keeps you hooked. I was a little disappointed how easily things wrapped up, but there’s otherwise a regular stream of emergencies and life-threatening dangers to overcome, which means you’re not waiting around for a single mystery to be resolved. You get invested in this woman’s smaller triumphs and failures along the way.
Oxygen is a taut thriller exploring human consciousness and the lengths people will go to survive against all the odds, and Aja’s skills behind the camera helps bring Christie LeBlanc’s efficient screenplay to life. Mélanie Laurent deserves particular praise for anchoring everything with a performance that’s almost exclusively down to her voice and facial expressions, meaning Oxygen ranks as one of Netflix’s better low-budget high-concept originals.
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FRANCE • USA | 2021 | 100 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | FRENCH
director: Alexandre Aja.
writer: Christie LeBlanc.
starring: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric & Malik Zidi.