Synopsis – 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.
My Take – The latest to join the single person POV thriller while stuck in a box sub-genre is this French Netflix original from director Alexandre Aja, who is known for his diverse filmography which includes the likes of the 2003 French slasher High Tension, the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes, the 2010 bloody horror comedy Piranha 3D, the 2013 Joe Hill adaption Horns, and 2019’s crocodile survival thriller Crawl, among others.
Originally announced in 2017 with Anne Hathaway in the starring role, who was subsequently replaced by Noomi Rapace in 2020 with Franck Khalfoun directing, only to be replaced by French actress, filmmaker, and singer Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, 6 Underground), giving the film the necessary boost.
While at first glance, the film might look like just another simple small-budget sci-fi gimmicky thriller in similar vein to the other Netflix science fiction film, Stowaway, but thankfully unlike the Joe Penna directed feature, this film benefits from tight direction along with an inventive and well-written script that tells a rich, twisting story of paranoia, loneliness, memory, and what hope lies beyond a planet ravaged by a pandemic.
But most importantly, despite being mostly set in a single location and containing lighter shock value in comparison to director Aja‘s previous work, the film never loses steam and instead continuously finds ingenious elements to keep the nail-biting tension alive throughout. Anchored by a strong central performance from Laurent, and a stylish set design, this one is probably director Alexandre Aja‘s best work till date.
The story follows a woman (Mélanie Laurent) who wakes up in a small and contained cryogenic chamber with no memory of how she got there. However, that’s the least of her problems, as the automated Medical Interface Liaison Operator or M.I.L.O (voiced by Mathieu Amalric), a Siri-like device, informs her that her oxygen supplies are dwindling and is currently at 35%. With time running out, the woman, who M.I.L.O. informs her is listed only as Omicron 267, has to rebuild her memory and discover her real identity using phone calls and the internet, all in order to figure out a way to escape her current nightmare.
Right from the first scene, the stakes are high, and, as the mystery starts to peel back its layers onscreen, it adds even further depth as to why the young woman must succeed in figuring out a solution to her situation. Scripted by Christie LeBlanc, the film’s plot is quite reminiscent of director Rodrigo Cortés‘s Buried (2010), with its built-in claustrophobia given a high-concept sci-fi upgrade and a cleverer script that touches important questions of existence, while throwing in at least one twist you won’t see coming, even if you successfully guess the rest of it.
Though the script was written years ago, the issues the lead deals with are ripped straight from the still ravaging COVID-19 pandemic. Loss, grief, seclusion, and hopelessness are all concepts the film explores, and the connection with rationing oxygen is self-explanatory. As her memories are triggered, she realizes her past isn’t as rosy as she first thought. This one might not have intended to be a pandemic film initially, but these elements are what makes it all the better.
Yes, the moment when the film pivots from breathless suspense into high-minded sci-fi might feel tedious to some, but thankfully director Aja keeps the jolts coming to keep us intrigued. Survival thrillers only work if the audience is as nervous as the main character, and here we have the ultimate audience surrogate. Like her, we know nothing about her identity when we first see her. We trust her assumptions from the start and then grow increasingly paranoid as lies start to unravel. We’re right there with her in the pod, feeling her panic.
Much of this French film is set inside a room so tiny that the woman it contains can barely sit up, much less rise to her feet and walk around. But she’s supported by ingenious film making. One might think there are only a handful of angles from which to film a woman lying on her back in a cryogenic capsule, but director Aja and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre come up with an impressive array of perspectives on the film’s cramped purview.
It’s an ante-upping formal challenge for director Alexandre Aja, following his satisfying limited-location thriller Crawl, where a young woman squared off against some mean alligators in a flooded house. Stéphane Roche’s editing is similarly stimulating, blending together fractured bits of past and present, real and imagined, into a panic-inducing fog that’s only broken when the protagonist slices open her palm to confirm she’s alive.
Despite these limitations, Mélanie Laurent is entirely up to task and carries the film effortlessly. Considering the coffin-like space she’s enclosed in, Laurent invests in the character with all of the panic, anger, frustration, acceptance and resilience that the character needs to make the viewer invested in her predicament. In other roles, Mathieu Amalric‘s voice is calm and soothing as always while French-Algerian actor Malik Zidi is effective in a dialogue-free role. On the whole, ‘Oxygen’ is a riveting smartly paced sci-fi thriller anchored by its swift direction and Mélanie Laurent‘s compelling performance.
Directed – Alexandre Aja
Rated – R
Run Time – 100 minutes