Alexandre Aja returns with another reliable, claustrophobic entry into the sci-fi/thriller space

By: Steve Pulaski

The old saying goes, if you give Alexandre Aja a premise you can sum up on a cocktail napkin, an entrapping setting, and a powerhouse lead, he’ll gift you a tense film in return. He did it with 2019’s breakout creature feature Crawl, and long before that, he took his talents to a beach resort and the backwoods for Piranha and The Hills Have Eyes, respectively.

With Oxygen — now streaming on Netflix — Aja dabbles into science-fiction, but strips the framework down to one enclosed setting: a cryogenic chamber. The unfortunate soul who wakes up inside the enclosed tomb, no larger than a coffin, is Dr. Liz Hansen (Mélanie Laurent). She awakes with no memory of who she is, with no recollection of her professional nor personal background, and her body is riddled with IVs and mysterious wires. Her only form of communication is a computer program named MILO (voiced by Mathieu Amalric), which comes built into the apparatus. Liz is losing oxygen at an alarming pace, but MILO cannot guide her out of her current situation. It’s as finicky about the wording of user commands as your average automated call system, and reminds one of the cold, clinical HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

We’re as entrapped as Liz is from the very beginning, with the first half-hour dedicated to Liz forming the right questions to MILO in efforts to figure out who she is and how she can survive. She can’t even tell you where she is, which makes calling emergency services a special kind of nightmare. To make matters worse, the calls she does make have an unreliable connection. Why is no one responding to MILO’s emergency alarm? Why has no one heard of her husband? Why can’t she remember what her last project was before waking up here?

Patient viewers will find all/most of the answers they’re looking for during Oxygen‘s suitable 95 minute runtime. If you want to distill Oxygen down to a couple similar films, its premise is a hybrid of the Ryan Reynolds thriller Buried crossed with the aforementioned 2001. On that note alone, it’s a bit of a unique specimen, especially considering the direction screenwriter Christie LeBlanc takes. While committed to its tight quarters and the claustrophobia that ensues, LeBlanc integrates themes of isolation and fear of an unknown future. It’s undeniable that we’ll be viewing films through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come (wrongly or rightly), but Oxygen‘s premise draws similar parallels to the hellscape in which we’ve lived our lives for over a year now. Flashbacks and scrambled memories showing doctors with masks amidst a viral outbreak recall the footage that’s too been burned into our retinas.

That sad, some issues do arise. The story’s tendency to dogpile twists and clinical terminology is to its own detriment, as the narrative obviously prompts intrigue but little engagement. This is offset by Laurent’s commanding performance. With little mobility to perform conventionally, Laurent runs the gambit of emotions, cycling between anger, anxiety, fear, desperation, and anguish so swiftly they practically beg her to overact. But she never does.

Suspension of disbelief is still required for this sci-fi venture, however. One hangup I had a hard time getting past, as I try to avoid spoilers to the best of my abilities. It’s hard to believe that a cryogenic chamber would be equipped with a massive supercomputer of sorts, capable of making outgoing calls and digging up archived social media posts. Liz’s situation proves to be an anomaly, and as such, she’s probably gotten the most use out of MILO than anyone before or after her.

Call me cynical, but LeBlanc’s desire to carve out a happy ending left me a little unsatisfied as well, beatific as Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography might be. With so much (welcomed) concretion into Liz’s life and background that’s conservatively revealed overtime, a dose of ambiguity would’ve done Oxygen well. Like so many movies of this breed, the claustrophobic setting makes for an uncomfortable sit, but the patient viewers are rewarded with another thoughtful entry into Aja’s filmography, which continues to be enriched by reliable entries into the horror and thriller genres.

NOTE: Oxygen is available to stream on Netflix. To get the most out of the film — and the spectacular Mélanie Laurent — make sure to adjust Netflix’s default setting of playing the dubbed version in favor of the French dialog with subtitles.

Grade: B

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