‘Oxygen’ Review: Aja’s Twisty Thriller Leaves You Breathless
By Daniel Rester
French horror director Alexandre Aja has trapped many of his films’ characters in tight spaces before. They include the travel trailer in The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and the damp basement in Crawl (2019). In those films, however, he would eventually release the characters — and the audience — from the contained settings.
Now Aja challenges himself with use of space even more with Oxygen (2021), which sticks one character in a claustrophobic and malfunctioning cryo unit for the duration of the film. To say it’ll make you uncomfortable at times is an understatement, but that is just proof that Aja makes it work. Imagine the buried coffin scene in Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) but with an extended runtime and a sci-fi sheen and you have Aja’s film.
Oxygen stars the underrated Mélanie Laurent (who replaced both Anne Hathaway and Noomi Rapace in the challenging lead role) as a woman named Liz. She wakes up in a confined medical pod with only hazy flashes of memories. Multiple tubes and straps connect her to the pod’s futuristic system.
The unit’s artificial intelligence and interactive display, MILO (the smooth voice of Mathieu Amalric), assists Liz as she tries to find out more about herself and why she is trapped in this unit. She has to move quickly to find a way out though because there is only so much oxygen available. As Liz attempts to connect with the outside world and escape this setting, she faces many hurdles that I won’t spoil.
Elements of thrillers like Buried (2010) and Source Code (2011) came to my mind while viewing Oxygen, yet it never felt like a ripoff either. A number of films have now done the “one setting for the duration of the film” thing, though it takes a talented filmmaker to make a good version of that idea. Aja takes Christie LeBlanc’s smart and suspenseful script and turns it into a gripping sci-fi ride that only becomes tedious on occasion despite its limited framework. He manages quite a few creative shots (especially one spinning one) and paces the plot well as LeBlanc’s script keeps adding twists and Laurent keeps providing depth to Liz.
Let’s stay with Laurent. This whole thing would not have worked if she phoned it in for even a second. The actress amazes as she presents Liz’s emotional reactions and character capabilities as challenges arise. Please do not watch the dubbed version that is the default on Netflix, and which confused me at first. Switch to the original French recording and put on subtitles. Otherwise you will lose a lot of the subtlety and beauty in Laurent’s work.
While Liz’s situation is terrifying, there are some funny moments to be found in the back and forth between Liz and MILO. Him trying to constantly sedate her is a good running joke. Adding the artificial intelligence system to the mix was an inspired idea as it allows some levity and something for Laurent to work off of. Amalric is purposely dry and straightforward as he attempts to make MILO HAL 9000-like in ways.
Oxygen is a hard film to talk about without spoiling anything. I will say that despite the limited setting, there is a lot of plot development and some wild twists. When Aja isn’t trapping us in the pod, he does a fine job of detailing Liz’s memories in vivid ways. He also stages the final thirty minutes in breathtaking ways and even includes an effective jump scare for his horror fans. That final stretch is where the film really comes alive and elevates it from good to terrific.
Aja may be best known for his horror projects, but with Oxygen he shows that he is plenty capable of handling science fiction and thriller material and limited settings. LeBlanc’s writing and Laurent’s mesmerizing performance certainly help him too. The film does become repetitive and dull in a couple of patches in the middle, but for the most part Oxygen is an edge-of-your-seat thriller perfectly fit in its scale for a streaming service like Netflix. Again, just make sure you switch away from the poorly dubbed version.
My Grade: 8/10 (letter grade equivalent: B+)
Running Time: 1h 40min