A true French master of horror, Alexandre Aja (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes remake, and most recently Crawl) has never shied away from extreme levels of gore and fear. With his latest, Oxygen, he pushes more in the direction of the sci-fi thriller, with Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) playing Elizabeth Hansen, a woman who wakes up in a cryogenic chamber with no memory of who she is, let alone how she got there. Unfortunately, the reason she is woken up in the first place is because there is some manner of emergency situation which has lowered the amount of oxygen in her chamber, so she’s left with about 90 minutes figure out who she is, how she got there, and how to save herself.
Written by Christie LeBlanc, Oxygen more or less unfurls in real time with moments of flashback/memory that infiltrate Elizabeth’s thoughts and make her question whether what she’s seeing is real or a false recollection. With the help of an onboard computer interface named M.I.L.O. (voiced by the great Mathieu Amalric, most recently seen as Olivia Cooke’s father in Sound of Metal), Elizabeth begin to comb through records that reveal all sorts of things, such as that she is a scientist who specializes in cryogenics, so she likely put herself there (although she is initially convinced she’s being held captive since she’s unable to unlock her pod). She begins to remember a husband (Malik Zidi) and their unsuccessful attempts at starting a family, followed by him contracting a mysterious virus during a pandemic (the film is clearly set in the future, but feels as if it was filmed in the last year).
She’s able to get in touch with French police and others via the computer’s communication system, but everyone seems to have different stories about who she is and how she got there. Some attempt to convince her she was never married or that they’re close to figuring out where she is and are on the verge of rescuing her. But as her memories begin to return to her fully, she’s able to figure out how to see what is outside her pod, and it’s both shocking and visually awe-inspiring, in a rare moment in an Aja film where the horrific and the beautiful are one in the same.
Since nearly the entire film is set inside this very tight—although surprisingly roomy—location, Laurent and Aja do everything in their powers to convey all the mystery, danger and small victories. I especially like the weirdly organic mechanical arm that comes out whenever Elizabeth needs an injection and how it attempts to evade her grabbing it to keep it from giving her unwanted sedation or worse. It appears almost muscular—or worse: phallic—as it zigs and zags inside the pod, while M.I.L.O. blurts out that any damage to a cryogenic pod would be a violation of some futuristic law or another.
At a certain point, Oxygen goes from being a story of survival to one of identity, and it’s due entirely to Laurent’s layered, perfect performance that goes beyond simply feeling trapped and somewhat claustrophobic to being lost in her own body, wanting to be free of the machines that surround her (and in some cases, inhabit her), and wanting to know as much as she can about her own identity. This goal is not made easy since everyone she has contact with is lying to her to varying degrees, and the only neutral party (M.I.L.O.) only responds to certain questions and commands; it just takes time for Elizabeth to learn/remember the jargon. At various times while watching Oxygen, you will absolutely catch yourself attempting to slow down your own breathing so as no to deplete your own limitless supply; it’s that kind of skilled storytelling that puts you right in there with Laurent, wondering how you would do in such cramped quarters. I like most of Aja’s films, but this is one of the few that reminds me what a craftsman and an artist he can be when given solid material.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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