Oxygen is a good film in the sense that it likely wasn’t meant to be anything more than simply average. Thanks to our good friend, COVID, it reveals itself to be slightly above average due to the way the narrative weaves in a global pandemic as an instigator behind almost all the events that transpire. Even with someone as reasonably talented as Alexandre Aja, previously known for creature features such as Piranha 3D (2010) and Crawl (2019), behind the camera, the saving grace of the film, other than an excellent performance from Mélanie Laurent, may just be the sheer coincidence of being affected by the kind of catastrophe it portrays. The script was finished long before the virus was even a thought, and production was even slated to begin just before the shutdown. However, unlike most everything else the pandemic has already affected, the delay was probably for the best. The limited, confined production, which was ultimately completed in Aja’s native France while the country was still in panic mode, allows the film to pack a timely and oddly refreshing punch that saves it from its more derivative features, which would have derailed it at any other point in time.
These confines won’t really encourage you to read the film as a metaphor for the nerve-inducing experience we’ve all been through over the last year, however — and in the interest of maintaining your dignity, you probably shouldn’t. While the sociopolitical commentary may have worked for the similarly-themed Buried (2010), in which we find Ryan Reynolds on his own buried alive in the Middle East, but this futuristic take on the premise is best left as a piece of distracting entertainment. Nevertheless, the atmosphere is no less suffocating, literally and dramatically.
Beginning with a young woman (Laurent), dubbed “Omicron 267,” who awakens in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of who she is or why she’s there, her only solution is to use the space at her disposal, namely the guiding Q&A she has with the high-tech chamber’s artificial intelligence, MILO (Mathieu Amalric), in order to recover what memories she can of her previous life while also working to preserve the dwindling oxygen supply that will ultimately determine her fate. The first matter of business is taken care of rather quickly, as she uses her wit and her careful choice of words with MILO to discover her name: Liz. From there, her interactions begin to jog her memory, but her attempts to contact the outside do more harm than good as what she begins to perceive as true is questioned, frustrating the viewer as much as her when it becomes clear that not every memory she recalls is real.
It’s in moments such as this when the real-time effect of the narrative accomplishes wonders, for we begin to feel every bit of confusion and desperation along with Liz as her situation becomes all the more dire and her pleas for help seem to fall on deaf ears. The constant, bordering on ubiquitous, extreme close-up camera angles do their part as well, capturing Mélanie Laurent in every bit of the frame when necessary, a twofold exercise that gives the chamber its claustrophobia while also providing an unbridled intimacy to Liz’s memories. Laurent herself carries the film from beginning to end, using her physical presence to hoist the film’s emotional punch, especially in the moments in which Christie LeBlanc’s screenplay can’t seem to do that itself. Laurent has lately been finding great success with her directing career ever since her breakout performance in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), but here she reminds us why she is a great actress at her core. She runs the gamut of emotion, at once feeling determined and hopeful, and distraught and hopeless, even going so far as to wring out some shades of body horror as Liz is plagued by visions of what will happen when her oxygen is depleted.
Laurent is just one factor in ensuring the intrigue of who Liz is, why she’s in the chamber, and exactly how her fate will play out remains consistently strong. Unfortunately, that intrigue may be a bit too great, for the ultimate payoff doesn’t seem to justify all of the potential plot points that are introduced for the audience to consider. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong when a movie winds up being something different than how it began, but, ultimately, most puzzles (at least the good ones) only go together one way. When following a plotline that has already been done before, and to great effect, enough has to be done in order to single the film in question out as an individual beast. Oxygen lands on its feet, but the intrigue of its amnesia-induced premise gradually evolves into a hindrance due to just how heavily it weighs on the flow of the narrative. The film finds itself too heavily reliant on flashbacks, or what Liz and the viewer can only assume are flashbacks. Their redundancy and forced nature are such that the white-hot thrill of watching her communicate with MILO in order to find her way out is undermined by a rather predictable outcome and a lack of spine-tingling spooks.
Luckily, these are precisely the kind of basic life-and-death, all-or-nothing thrills that Aja is immensely talented in producing. And it is likely for the best that the suspense is as basic as it is here. No need to make the present as convoluted as the past. Whatever familiarity holds Oxygen back from achieving something truly awe-inspiring is made up for in the way Aja taps into the claustrophobia and confrontation with mortality that will prove to be too much for those who pursue the film knowing these are the kind of fears that crawl under their skin. If nothing else, it’s unassuming enough to draw you in, and even if we aren’t talking about it by the end of the year — trust me, we won’t be — we can enjoy it for the harmless showcase of talent that it is.
Incluvie Score: 3/5
Movie Rating: 3.5/5