A film review by Craig J. Koban May 19, 2021

OXYGEN jjj
½ 

2021, R, 100 mins.

Mélanie Laurent as Elizabeth Hansen  /  Mathieu Amalric as M.I.L.O  /  Malik Zidi as Léo Ferguson  /  Marc Saez as Ortiz

Directed by Alexandre Aja  /  Written by Christie LeBlanc

ORIGINAL FILM

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).  

Directed 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. 

 

 

She quickly 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 square one. 

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 dies. 

To say that OXYGEN dishes out an unenviable directorial challenge is an understatementMuch 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 situation.   

Like great contemplative sci-fi, OXYGEN almost becomes an icy reflection of our current times (flashback scenes to characters masked in hospitals seems to eerily parallel our COVID-19 woes this past year-plus, not to mention that a character that's trapped with a rapidly depleting oxygen supply echoes the debilitating fears of health care workers in the world of running out of ventilators and air to provide for near terminally ill Coronavirus patients, especially in India right now).  I don't think that Aja is aggressively trying to draw out such parallels, but they are there nonetheless.  Where I think he makes some missteps here is in the manner that the story inescapably culminates with the inherent mysteries of Elizabeth being dealt with and directly answered, which may have been a slight creative error (sometimes, ambiguity works in films better than having everything spelt out in the end).  The would-be shocking power of OXYGEN'S multiple twists and reveals aren't quite up to speed with the sensational build up towards them.  For the most part, I was utterly hypnotized by Aja's film and was fully on board for the endlessly unnerving journey that it took me on, but the final destination was somewhat unsatisfying.  Still, OXYGEN remains a confidently orchestrated exercise in sheer undulating dread that takes a relatively bare bones and spare premise and gets an improbable amount of cinematic mileage out of it.  As a - ahem! - breathless nailbiter, this is one of the finest in some time. 

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