‘Oxygen’ Review: A Breath of Fresh Air

This week sees the release of Oxygen, a new sci-fi thriller on Netflix starring Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, 6 Underground) and no one else. The film begins as Laurent’s character awakens inside a cramped cryostasis pod to an alarm warning that her air supply has been compromised and she has about an hour to live. If that weren’t enough cause for concern, she also has no idea who she is or how she got there. Oxygen is a detective story of sorts, as a clever and resourceful heroine attempts to piece together her own life before her time runs out, following one clue to the next and unraveling a conspiracy with massive implications. And though the film’s many twists (which I won’t spoil here) get pretty out there, Oxygen works because it commits to being small so that any time the performance, story, or visuals, do go big, it hits hard.

Thinking Inside the Box

Oxygen feels tailor-made for cinema’s pandemic era. Except for in brief, scattered flashes of memory, Laurent is the only figure on screen, and she is only able to interact with her pod’s AI assistant and the handful of people she’s able to reach by phone. The story’s tension stems from confinement, from lack of human connection and a lost sense of time. There are body horror angles to Oxygen that speak to a fear of hospitals, the terror of asphyxiation, and the torture of losing a loved one to disease.

But, while COVID-19 played a role in getting Oxygen produced, Christie LeBlanc’s screenplay actually dates back to 2016, when it was included on the annual Black List of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays. When the script (then titled O2) was first acquired by production company IM Global in 2017, Anne Hathaway was announced as the star. Then, it was Noomi Rapace. In mid-2020, during a window between COVID spikes in France, director Alexandre Aja took over the project and fast-tracked it with Mélanie Laurent in the leading role. Translated into French and then shot over just two weeks, Oxygen is now a specific artifact of the strange times in which we live, when heightened safety measures have made smaller productions more appealing and the drought of new movies has made streaming releases and non-English films more likely to find an audience in the United States.

Oxygen

For the Next 101 minutes, You Will Be Content with the Size of Your Apartment

Oxygen takes place almost entirely in a single location — a clean white medical stasis pod not much roomier than an MRI scanner. (Similarities to the 2010 survival film Buried, set inside a coffin, are not lost on director Aja.) When Laurent’s character, initially identified as Omicron 267 but later uncovering the name Dr. Elizabeth “Liz” Hansen, awakens in her pod, she has no memory of who she is or how she came to be there. The scenario feels like something out of a point-and-click adventure game in which an anonymous protagonist must figure out their role in a story already in progress using a limited set of tools. Liz’s only window to the outside world is her pod’s AI assistant, M.I.L.O. (voice of Mathieu Almaric, Sound of Metal), and like any computer interface it takes time to learn how to use effectively. She gradually coaxes information out of M.I.L.O., gets access to the Internet, makes phone calls, discovers new features of her pod and unlocks permissions, all within roughly the same physical constraints as a player in an Oculus VR game.

Despite its confined, mostly unchanging setting, Oxygen remains visually interesting. Aja and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (Crawl, Shazam!) rotate between dozens of camera positions around the pod, adding new ones each time the stakes of the story escalate and reserving extreme closeups of Laurent for only the most tense or emotional moments. The pod’s computer screen occasionally provides new visual stimuli, and is otherwise occupied by M.I.L.O.’s swirling blue smoke ring of an avatar, essentially a second face to cut to during dialogue. Our heroine’s primary physical antagonist is a syringe on a mechanical swing arm that occasionally springs into action to threaten her with unwanted drugs, and even when it’s hidden away it’s never more than a few inches from her body. As her air supply grows thinner, she begins to hallucinate, giving us something new to look at whenever the pod gets too familiar. And, of course, there’s the looming threat of the oxygen level display, a reminder that the gravest peril Liz faces is invisible and drawing closer with every breath.

Over the course of the film, Liz gradually begins to recover memories from before her confinement, glimpses at a warm personal life in a bleak near-future with husband Léo (Malik Zidi, whose portrayal feels like a twist on the tired “smiling flashback wife” trope). These scenes are kept brief and almost totally silent, creating a contrast against the claustrophobia of the pod while still denying any real comfort from it. Further undercutting any sense of safety is the impression that Liz’s memories cannot be trusted, that they are either inaccurate or incomplete in a way that may be harming her escape attempt rather than helping. There’s just enough to add some variety to the film’s visuals, but not enough to chip away at its central conceit of a one-room, one-woman show.

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Oxygen

Hell is an Automated Phone Tree

And it is Laurent’s show, after all. Oxygen is the kind of challenge actors live for, a role that demands that they carry an entire film from beginning to end with no need to share the spotlight but also nothing and no one to hide behind. With a lesser actor at the lead, Oxygen could easily have run out of air long before the end of its two-hour runtime, but Mélanie Laurent has come prepared. The key to Laurent’s performance is her restraint — the story puts her character through the emotional wringer, but Laurent saves her highest gears for when they’ll hit the hardest. Despite the temptation to reach for 127 Hours-style accolades, this is not a showy performance. Laurent is here to serve the story.

She carries the film’s emotional weight alone, but Laurent does have a few other performers to play off of, mostly in the form of disembodied voices. Mathieu Almerac’s M.I.L.O. is barely a character, but in a way that works. There’s not enough personality for the obstacles that M.I.L.O. throws in Liz’s path to be read as deliberate stubbornness, which runs the risk of becoming funny. M.I.L.O. is a truly neutral party in the way that can be frustrating but lacks malice, just like a real piece of software. Liz often struggles to find the exact phrasing or terminology to coax M.I.L.O. into helping her with a given challenge, a very relatable problem in a world where you’re more likely to have a phone conversation with a computer than with another human being.

Liz does get a few humans on the horn, though, each providing pieces to the puzzle of her identity and her predicament, some that fit and some that don’t. A stable of unknown French actors lend their voices to a police inspector, Liz’s mother, and a mysterious woman who seems to have the answers to all of Liz’s questions, if she can be trusted. The script constantly throws into question whose information is reliable and whose is fabricated, including Liz’s own memories. If there’s a complaint to be made about Oxygen, it’s that information is revealed in an order that, once all the cards are on the table, feels a bit too convenient. Everything adds up in the end, but only because Liz happens to acquire exactly the right information to uncover the next twist while somehow missing anything that might spoil the twist after that. Because of this, Oxygen is not the type of twist-heavy story that’s better the second time around.

For the first watch, though, I found that the pace of the reveals kept me guessing along with the character in a way where I never felt ahead or behind the protagonist. Each answer seems obvious only while it’s being given, which is just how I want a mystery to make me feel. Oxygen is an exercise of getting the most out of as little as possible, even in its story economy. It’s simply an impressive little movie, and I recommend checking it out. Just do it quickly — once someone’s spoiled for you, the experience will be greatly diminished.

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