Review: OXYGEN, Little Time to Catch Your Breath
A woman wakes up in cryogenic chamber, hooked up to various tubes, cocooned in an 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 asphixiates. 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 staitonary 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 (especially a year into a pandemic) 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 narrative opportunities.
Oxygen will be available on Netflix beginning May 12th.