Oxygène / Oxygen (dir. Alexandre Aja, 2021) – Waking up in a cryogenic unit with no recollection of who or where she is, a woman struggles to remember her past before she runs out of oxygen.
Single-location movies aren’t exactly a new concept. Mainstream fare like Buried, Devil, and Phone Booth all had their turn at inducing claustrophobia in their leading men, trapping them within various confined spaces for the entire runtime, save for intermittent flashbacks.
In the absence of landscapes and set pieces to hold the audience’s attention, sustained tension is key to the success of these movies. So is a good leading performance that will convince you of their nightmare and pull you into it.
Oxygen has both. Director Alexandre Aja is no stranger to suspense, his mastery of which had elevated his work in the horror genre to classics, including Haute Tension and Mirrors. Lead actress Mélanie Laurent has herself delivered a masterclass in Inglourious Basterds, as if that one scene in the presence of Hans Landa isn’t enough.
Laurent brings this same credibility to the singular performance as Omicron 267 or Liz, an amnesiac woman who finds herself trapped in a cryogenic unit. She tears herself free of the cocoon, only to find more restraints on her.
Her only contact with the outside world is through the unit’s artificial intelligence, MILO, or the Medical Interface Liaison Operator (Mathieu Amalric). The detached voice does a serviceable job in connecting her to the police, only that they don’t seem too keen to help her.
Laurent gives the role everything she has. Her fear of being left in the lurch is palpable, each time the call disconnects. With only flashes of memories and MILO’s unreliable archives to guide her, her predicament feels increasingly desperate and impossible to get out of.
As the oxygen level on screen depletes at an alarming albeit strikingly inconsistent rate, the pressure stays on throughout most of the nerveracking thriller. There are few moments of stagnancy visually. Screenwriter Christie LeBlanc’s tight script adds to the anxiety, introducing the plausibility of manipulation beyond the pod and Liz’s hallucinations that cross into reality.
The eventual answers to the mystery aren’t novel twists by genre standards. Still, Oxygen ranks level with its sci-fi compatriots with how compellingly the story is told, as well as the big questions it poses on the timeless theme of (no spoilers!) humanity’s relationship with technology.
Oxygen finds the right cast and crew to make its claustrophobic nightmare real and gripping.
Oxygen is now on Netflix.