French filmmaker Alexandre Aja has been working in American cinema for sometime now and has made a name for himself as a horror director, with a knack for gore and stunning make-up work. Aja works well with the horror formula and his approach to the B-movie genre to create some magic in features such as “High Tension”, “The Hills Have Eyes”, “Horns”, “Crawl”, “Piranha” and my favorite film of his “Mirrors”. Aja moves away from the horror genre and takes a more traditional thriller approach with his Netflix film “Oxygen”. The filmmaker returns to French language cinema and uses the buried alive genre, but with a high tech spin to present “Oxygen” as a real time sci-fi thriller.
With it’s confined coffin setting, it’s no surprise that Alexandre Aja has cited director Rodrigo Cortés’ film “Buried” with Ryan Reynolds as a direct inspiration. Filmed during the summer of 2020 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, this feels like the most ‘pandemic thriller’ yet in its own unpredictable way. “Oxygen” is a film about isolation, loss and an uncertain future.
We aren’t handed much to go on when “Oxygen” begins, as we meet Omicron 267 (known as Elizabeth). When she wakes up to the sounds of ringing alarms, she has no idea where she is. All she has is the feeling for restraints that keep her connected to her bed, working herself into a full-blown panic attack in fear that she’s been buried alive. She triggers an A.I. system known as M.I.L.O., that’s intended to help Elizabeth with her needs inside the capsule.
M.I.L.O. is a machine programmed to answer simple questions, not provide solutions, make phone calls and giving not so helpful reminders of the dwindling O2 capacity that adds a ticking clock element. There’s even a bit of dark humor added by M.I.L.O. (voiced by Mathieu Amalric of “007’s Quantum Of Solace”) and his constant asking in Elizabeth’s most frenzied moments if she’d like a sedative. Or how he constantly reminds her that if she breaks or destroys the cryo pod in which she is locked in, that it’s a Federal offense and can bring jail time.
“Oxygen” is most effective as a mystery without giving us any clues within its first half, as we watch Elizabeth’s response to the sheer horror of the event and doing whatever she can to get rescued. Having to piece together the puzzle through flashes of her life in flashbacks to hospitals with masked patients, placing the tension even more firmly in the COVID era while never explicitly drawing that parallel in a way that heightens the tension. Elizabeth struggles to understand her situation, while quickly running out of air. What’s so smart and different about “Oxygen”, is that even though Elizabeth has a supercomputer at her disposal, it’s a system that only responds.
She can’t just tell M.I.L.O. to figure it all out. She has to ask the right questions to get the truth of why she’s there and how she can possibly escape. So why has no one responded to MILO’s distress signal? Why do calls to home and authorities seem to be getting Elizabeth nowhere? Why can’t she even remember her own past other than a couple fleeting images? There are concrete answers to all of these questions by the time the movie is over.
Some won’t be completely satisfied by the final act of “Oxygen”, but believe me when I say that it holds together. Aja’s film is defined by its lack of space and doesn’t leave the unit for it’s entire 90 minute running time. Aja’s animation and production design departments have expertly constructed a cryochamber that is visually pleasing. It helps that Aja keeps a robust direction by keeping the pace moving and pulling out kinetic composition shots from different perspectives and angles.
As with any of these films hiring a great actor or actress is always key to the films success, especially if the viewer is going to be with that one person for every single frame. Originally set to star Anne Hathaway and eventually replaced by Noomi Rapace (“Prometheus”) before French and American actress Mélanie Laurent came on board. Laurent (“Inglorious Basterds”, “Beginners”) gives a stunning performance and owns the screen as the film’s only real character.
Laurent delivers a full bodied performance in the leading role and running on an entire gamut of emotions from fear to anger to grief. She’s perfect for this part, reminding viewers of her incredible range while locked into a performance in which she basically only uses her face and voice. Just note that Netflix often defaults their films to to dubbed versions of it’s available. I highly suggest you watch “Oxygen” in French. Mine started dubbed and I had to switch it to the native Drench language because you lose so much of Laurent’s performance if you let her dub speak for her. Although it’s puzzling that she even has someone dub her voice when Laurent speaks fluent English.
“Oxygen” is the kind of film that diving too far into it’s plot specifics would run the risk of giving away to spoilers. Aja’s latest would have benefited immensely from a theatrical release, which would have ratcheted up the tension significantly by watching “Oxygen” unfold on the biggest screen possible. It’s lean, mean, tense, beautifully shot and boasts one hell of a lead performance.
Fans of Alexandre Aja, both sci-fi and the thriller genres will find a lot to love about “Oxygen”. It’s certainly a much better film and works a whole lot better, than Netflix’s recent outer space adventure “Stowaway”. But, it’s still not as good as George Clooney’s one man sci-fi drama for Netflix “The Midnight Sky”. Alexandre Aja still hasn’t made a movie I hated and with “Oxygen” has crafted a lean, tense and never boring confined thriller.
GRADE: ★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5)