A woman wakes up in cryogenic chamber, hooked up to various tubes, cocooned in
fibrous cotton, with no idea how she got there, where it is, or even who she is.
And it seems she's awake because of a fault in the chamber's system; the oxygen
levels are dropping, and she has about an hour until she asphyxiates. And her
only help is the chamber's computer system, which, like so many computer
systems, can only help when it's asked the right questions.
Alexandre Aja's latest directorial feature leans more to science fiction than
horror, despite the rather desperate premise of its main character. A first
feature script by Christie LeBlanc, Oxygen proverbially (since its protagonist
is rather trapped) runs with its high concept twists and turns, preferring to
keep adding on surprised to the plot rather than plumb the depths of a more
straightforward situation. This makes for a frequently tense and exciting
thriller, as it has to get inventive on keeping our heroine both stationary and
occupied, but ends up somewhat overstaying its welcome.
Aja doesn't take the subtle route with symbolism, both by having Liz inside this
rather fancy coffin-shaped structure, and continually providing the image of a
rat in a maze as a reminder of her situation. Being somewhere between buried and
a rather claustrophobic escape room, there isn't much time to get to much deeper
implications, thoughts, or philosophical considerations of Liz's predicament.
Which is fine - this film, while not without substance, is leaning heavily to
style. This is a film that benefits from having to watch at home, where we're
more understanding of, and attuned to, being trapped in a small space.
While the production design of this small space holds some interest (a
particular object that occasionally emerges from the wall is quite fearful
despite its size), it's up to the story to keep us going. I'll avoid spoilers,
but suffice to say that the story almost never stops adding on another layer
upon Liz that throws a proverbial wrench in the works. While not quite in real
time (though close enough), Liz must grapple not only with regained memories
that she must re-interpret each time she is given new information from those she
is able to contact outside her chamber, but her immediate danger. What at first
seems straightforward soon turns out to have its own unique twist, and while not
one of these twists are surprising per se, Aja keeps the story humming along.
Laurent has to hold our attention with the camera focused in a close-up for the
majority of the film; no small pressure on any actor, but she has the chops for
it, and we're engaged with and worried about her safety. She's smart enough to
follow logical steps to get herself out of this predicament, but human enough to
make understandable errors. As MILO, the AI system, Mathieu Amalric needs only
provide what we would expect from a soothing yet matter-of-fact computer voice;
not to say it's a breezy task, and if you're going to hear a voice while
possibly awaiting death, Amalric's is a nice one. The other supporting actors do
a good job of voice acting, helping to add some (limited) depth and breadth to
the story, but Laurent is the star, literally and metaphorically; without her
engaging nature, we likely might not care.
High concept films can offer depth of theme and pause for philosophical thought,
and in theory, that's what Aja is offering. However, the time constraint, both
of the film and Liz's life, give no opportunity for these bigger questions, of
what it means to be human, what is the strength of memory, and how do we save
ourselves and each other when humanity is on the brink of destruction.
No doubt Oxygen keeps itself humming at a brisk pace, with a performance by
Laurent that holds our attention and a plot that has more than its fair share of
twists, both predictable and inventive. While it's not completely without
substance, it certainly has an engaging style, which almost makes up for missed
(Note: this is a Netflix original, and the service is defaulted to play the film
in English. I'd recommend switching to its original French and putting the