“Oxygen” is the next film from French director Alexandre Aja. You may remember his last movie “Crawl”, a surprisingly entertaining thriller about a father and daughter trapped inside their flooded home with killer alligators during a Category 5 hurricane. I admit on paper it sounded ridiculous, but it actually showed Aja to be a crafty filmmaker capable of capturing harrowing tight-quartered action and creating authentic edge-of-your-seat tension. I went into “Crawl” snickering and left smiling and genuinely impressed.
His follow-up “Oxygen” is a much different movie, one that will inevitably draw comparisons to the Ryan Reynolds claustrophobic thriller “Buried”. But the films have little in common other than their tightly confined settings. This one stars French actress Mélanie Laurent who I’ve enjoyed watching since her powerful breakthrough role in 2006’s “Don’t Worry, I’m Fine”. Here she’s tasked with carrying practically the entire onscreen workload, a daunting assignment but one that Laurent proves to be up for.
Talking about “Oxygen” is tricky and saying too much would spoil what turns out to be an engrossing experience. As with most movies, the less you know the better but it’s especially true here. What I can safely say is that the movie opens with a woman waking up to find herself bound inside of a sealed cryogenics pod. Terrified and disoriented, she frantically tries to get her bearings within the dimly lit unit, the haunting sounds from her heart- rate monitor beeping in the background. Within the first few minutes Aja has his audience firmly planted in his suffocating setting. He then methodically begins unpacking the mystery.
Not only is the woman bound, but she’s connected to all types of medical gadgetry. But worse of all, she has memory of who she is or how she ended up in the chamber. After freeing her hands she’s able to power up the chamber which suddenly lights up with displays. She’s also introduced to the pod’s AI named MILO (voiced by Mathieu Amalric), short for Medical Interface Liaison Operator. MILO informs her that he’s there to answer “all of her medical needs” but with a few caveats of course. He also shares something you never want to hear, “System failure. Oxygen level: 35%“. This sets up one of the key tensions of the film as the woman must piece back her memory if she’s to have any chance of getting out before the oxygen runs out.
“Oxygen” hinges on three absolutely essential components: a captivating lead, camerawork that’s able to keep things visually interesting, and a script that keeps audiences invested without ever collapsing into tedium. Screenwriter Christie LeBlanc ensures tedium isn’t an issue by mixing race-against-the-clock tension with a smart multi-layered mystery. It results in a propulsive story that was constantly surprising me, both with its unexpected twists and the creative ways LeBlanc keeps the plot moving it forward.
And Laurent is certainly a captivating lead. This isn’t an easy role for anyone to take on, but she comes at it with a fierce sense of commitment. Her ability to sell every second of her character’s terror, stress, and frustration is not only impressive but crucial to the story. It’s not hyperbole to call this a must-see performance; one brimming with anxiety and raw emotion that also ably captures the protagonist’s resilience and resourcefulness.
Meanwhile Aja and his DP Maxime Alexandre certainly do their part as well, enhancing the movie with a countless number of shrewdly calculated visual touches. With crafty camera angles and fluid movements, they make the most of their single location setting, using every inch of the pod’s ‘slightly larger than a casket’ interior to great effect. The few breaks we get from the cramped chamber mostly come through brief memory flashes – a swing in a backyard, a white lab rat, a hospital emergency room. As you would expect, these well-shot and well-utilized snippets slowly unveil pieces of the story, but they’re also welcomed chances for the audience to come out for air.
Fans of sci-fi thrillers are in for a real treat with “Oxygen”. Not only is it a great entry into Netflix’s portfolio, but its an audacious and absorbing slice of genre entertainment. Alexandre Aja pulls inspiration from several places and weaves it together with his own style to make something unexpectedly unique. Aja also knows he has an actress he can rely on and a script that sucks in the audience and ultimately pays off their investment. “Oxygen” premieres May 12th on Netflix.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS