2021, R, 100 mins.
Mélanie Laurent as Elizabeth Hansen / Mathieu Amalric as M.I.L.O / Malik Zidi as Léo Ferguson / Marc Saez as OrtizDirected by Alexandre Aja / Written by Christie LeBlanc
OXYGEN (now streaming on Netflix) is an unnervingly effective sci-fi thriller that does relative miracles with its extremely claustrophobic, mostly one setting premise (even though it was done better with the very similar BURIED years ago).
with maximum efficiency and innovation by Alexandre Aja (who previously
made a very different kind of tight spaced nerve jangler in 2019's
alligators/hurricane versus a basement trapped woman thriller CRAWL),
this French language effort manages to intoxicate very early on with its
superbly chilling premise (a woman awakens with amnesia inside a
futuristic high tech cryogenic freezing pod and is trapped inside with no
way out and with only minimum oxygen left) and milks it for all of its
white knuckled tension (those deathly afraid of confined spaces will find
this film thoroughly traumatizing).
Even when OXYGEN bites off too much for its own good and runs out
of steam in its final sections, the whole high concept endeavor remains a
frighteningly potent genre piece.
That, and Melanie Laurent quarterbacks this one-actor piece in one
of the most thanklessly headstrong performance of her career.
Aside from some
well spliced in flashbacks here and there, the entirety of OXYGEN takes
place in one highly restricted space: the aforementioned life support pod.
One thing that Aja understands is the dangers of bogging viewers
down with too many expositional details early on.
Instead, he thrusts us into the capsule with this shocked and
frightened women and allows us to go on a hellish journey of discovery and
survival with her. As the
film opens we meet Elizabeth Hansen (Laurent), who is abruptly awoken from
cryo-sleep inside the capsule, which is quite the wake-up call when alarms
are blaring out and she's realizes that (a) she has no memories whatsoever
of who she is, what she does, why she's in this pod, and where it actually
is and (b) her oxygen levels are reaching critically low levels and
will lead to her suffocated death if help doesn't arrive ASAP. Added
on to that is the fact that nearby aid doesn't appear to be available
outside the pod. Elizabeth
has one ally, the pod's AI computer system, the very Hal-9000-esque
M.I.L.O. (voiced by Mathieu Armalric), whose only function is to answer
any questions she has at any waking moment.
Predictably, Elizabeth is emotionally distraught, but , but manages
to calm herself down enough to assess her situation and figure out what to
do, despite her chronic memory loss.
learns that M.I.L.O. has complete control over the pod, but simply asking
it to be opened to secure her freedom won't happen (the AI requires the
top secret security codes to perform such an action, which the brain
fogged Elizabeth can't muster). What
M.I.L.O. can do for her, however, is make outside distress phone calls,
which after a few failed attempts is successful upon reaching the
police. This proves futile when it becomes clear that the only way
law enforcement will help is by having her provide some tangible details
about who she is, which she obviously can't provide.
As she begins to panic more heavily this leads to an increase in
oxygen intact, which, in turn, only means that her time inside this
apparent escape proof coffin becomes more limited.
Even attempts to physically break out of the capsule prove
completely ineffective. She
decides that the best way to have any chance of getting out alive is to do
some quick witted detective work as to her identity and life outside in
the real world, with an assist by M.I.L.O. in the process.
As she begins to piece together her real identity, Elizabeth gets
thrown a real curveball by an unknown stranger that she has contact with
that pleads with her that all is not what it seems and that abruptly
leaving the pod at any moment will instantly kill her. So, back to
One thing that
works immediately well in this film's favor is that, as already alluded
to, the script never plays all of its cards on the table too early.
If anything, OXYGEN begins as a ferociously intense mystery about
who Elizabeth is outside of the pod and how she got inside in the first
place, and in the early stages the narrative is like a vast jigsaw puzzle
that requires viewers to place all of its complex pieces together to make
some sense as to just what in the hell is going on here.
We get teases of her past, her relationship to her husband (who may
or may not be still alive) and her work in a particular field that seems
unavoidably linked to the capsule itself.
Complicating things immensely is that - as the oxygen levels
deplete - Elizabeth's grip on sanity begins to wane. She also starts
to have near paralyzing hallucinations, which stymies her sleuthing
efforts at the worst time. OXYGEN unfolds with a breakneck pace in its opening half,
held grippingly together by Elizabeth's process of self discovery.
Her relationship with the supercomputer is an enthrallingly
challenging one: It just won't help her in ways she wants.
It will only help by answering her queries, which forces Elizabeth
to think and think hard about the right ones to ask...and all before she
To say that
OXYGEN dishes out an unenviable directorial challenge is an understatement.
Much like BURIED from a decade ago (one of the best least-seen
thrillers of the 2010s that featured a staggeringly similar premise of
having star Ryan Reynolds being trapped and buried alive inside a coffin),
Aja has to get really clever when it comes to generating some visual
interest in the proceedings with his intrinsically limited setting. It forces him to find ways to make his thriller truly scary
and without having the freedom of having his camera or the main character
wherever he wants in the story. Having
flashbacks interspersed throughout helps to break up the fatiguing
repetitiveness of being just in the capsule for 90 plus minutes, but Aja
deserves supreme kudos for his stylistically flare here as well for coming
up with macabre ways to make this woman's pressure cooker situation become
more dire by the minute. Elizabeth
doesn't just have to battle memory loss, but also emotional and physical
fatigue and a race against the clock quest to get out before air access is
gone. That, and she also has to battle against - in one terrifying
moment - a robotic arm with a needle sedative attached that's trying to
inject and put her out. I
mean, this individual goes through the absolute ringer in the film.
This one woman
show would have never worked without the bravura performance by Laurent,
whom, like her director, has the challenge of relaying this character's
frantically all-over-the-map emotional state while essentially in the
prone and strapped down restraints of this tight pod.
Despite being in the most crammed of crammed spaces for the
majority of OXYGEN's running time, Laurent manages to convey Elizabeth's
palpable nervous breakdown due to her bewilderingly creepy predicament
while also showing her as a ruthlessly determined fighter that will do
absolutely anything to get out of this mess.
Laurent has been fly-in-under-the-radar stellar in films as far
reaching as INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
and BEGINNERS, but here she achieves a
whole other level of character immersion.
Like what Elizabeth Moss brought to her role as a broken, but not
beaten victim in last year's masterful THE
INVISIBLE MAN, Laurent here plays a female protagonist with
authentic layers and credible angst considering the sheer insanity of her