Alexandre Aja has spent the vast majority of his directorial career, which now encompasses nine features, working within the realm of horror, but he’s always favored exploring the many different corners of the genre. His breakout effort High Tension was a deliberately provocative slasher, The Hills Have Eyes a blood-soaked remake engineered to capitalize on the torture porn craze, Mirrors marked a detour into the supernatural, Piranha 3D was a tongue-in-cheek slice of cheeky fun, Horns put Daniel Radcliffe and the center of a darkly comic fable and Crawl was a massively entertaining father/daughter story masquerading as a creature feature.
The filmmaker’s latest is Oxygen, which was added to Netflix today. It isn’t exactly a horror movie, but it does boast a couple of serious jump scares and could prove to be difficult viewing for anyone with a fear of either contained spaces or needles. A high concept thriller, the pic follows a woman who wakes up in a cryogenic chamber with no idea who she is, how she got there or why this is happening to her, and she faces a race against time to piece together both her memory and circumstances before her air supply runs out.
When it comes to films set almost entirely within a single location, and a very cramped one at that, the two most important things are dynamic camerawork to prevent the visuals from becoming stagnant or uninteresting, and the casting of the central role. On both fronts, Oxygen has to be viewed as an unqualified success, with Aja keeping things moving and pulling out all sorts of kinetic tricks in terms of shot composition, perspective and angles, while Mélanie Laurent is simply phenomenal as the only person on screen for almost the entirety of the 101-minute running time.
Trying to deliver a fully-formed, three-dimensional and engaging performance from within the confines of what’s essentially a coffin isn’t an easy task, but Ryan Reynolds proved in 2010’s Buried that it could be done with aplomb, so it’s no surprise that Aja cited Rodrigo Cortés’ nailbiter as a direct inspiration. It requires a showstopper of a turn that doesn’t devolve into overacting or going too broad, and Laurent pulls it off perfectly. Oxygen was initially announced in the summer of 2017 with Anne Hathaway set to star, and she was eventually replaced by Noomi Rapace before Laurent came on board, but as soon as the credits roll, you’ll struggle to imagine anyone other than the Inglourious Basterds actress as the panicked heroine.
Forced to interact with only touchscreens, flashbacks, hallucinatory visions, phone calls and the voice of Mathieu Almaric as artificial intelligence MILO, Laurent is required to do literally all of both the narrative and dramatic heavy lifting, but she’s more than up to the task. Diving too far into plot specifics would run the risk of giving away some hefty spoilers, but it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to call it the best work of her career, as she awakens from stasis in a state of confused disarray before progressing all the way through the five stages of grief as the gaps in her backstory and the mystery at the center of Oxygen begin to get filled in, all while MILO’s not-so-helpful reminders of the dwindling O2 add a ticking clock element, and there’s even a bit of dark humor to be derived by his constant asking in her most frenzied moments if she’d like a sedative.
Admittedly, some of the continued third act revelations don’t really land the way they were obviously intended to, which is a byproduct of Oxygen perhaps running for ten or fifteen minutes longer than it should, stretching the premise to breaking point in the meantime. The more deductive viewers out there will also realistically be able to figure out where its heading well before things reach the midway point, but a few shaky steps towards sticking the landing tends to be par for the course when it comes to conceptual thrillers like this.
As a brief aside, Aja’s latest would have benefited immensely from a theatrical release, which would have no doubt ratcheted up the tension significantly by watching the events unfold on the biggest screen possible, but as things stand, it remains a highly efficient, relentlessly tense and sweatily claustrophobic real-time chamber piece that even throws some big ideas into the mix in among the genre trappings. It’s lean, mean, and boasts one hell of a lead performance, so fans of both sci-fi and the thriller in general will find a lot to love about Oxygen.