‘Oxygen’ is a Netflix sci-fi thriller about a woman (Mélanie Laurent) who wakes up in a futuristic cryogenic chamber with no idea of who she is, why she’s there, or what she can to get out before she runs out of air. Alexandre Aja’s “Oxygen” would seem to be the perfect COVID-era collaboration between the directors of “High Tension” and “Breathe.” The rare high-concept movie that grows more compelling as it begins to unveil its mysteries, the film plays out as a frantic game of 200 questions that hinges on Laurent’s character desperately asking the chamber’s ultra-advanced A.I. companion (voiced by Mathieu Amalric) to sift through social media and make a few last-ditch phone calls. Anything, she hopes, that might restore her memory or make contact with someone who can open the pod bay door before she asphyxiates to death.
Oxygen acquits itself in one important way. This is another of those accidentally timely films, based on a script completed in 2016 by first-time screenwriter Christie LeBlanc that just so happens to include a global pandemic as a major plot point. (It was a COVID-era production, however, shot between France’s first and second lockdowns.) Enter the third credited cast member, French-Algerian actor Malik Zidi, who appears in a series of overexposed flashback sequences that grow more coherent as Hansen frantically pieces together her life before the pod. The rest of Oxygen’s just slightly too long running time—the tagline for this 100-minute film reads, “No escape. No memory. 90 minutes to live”—is taken up with conversations between Hansen and people on the outside, some of whom are there to help her and some of whom just say they are. All the while, her oxygen supply dwindles.
Laurent has little to play with the movie's restricted set and with nobody to play against, bar Mathieu Amalric's disembodied voice as the pod's operator MILO. She manages to sell the sheer terror and panic of the situation, as well as investing you in Liz, which is no easy thing when she starts as a blank slate. It's a magnetic and wide-ranging performance as Laurent rises to the solo task. Despite the limitations (or perhaps because of them), Laurent gives us one of the best on-screen performances of 2021 so far. She immerses herself totally as Liz with every moment and every panicked breath. Considering the coffin-like space she’s enclosed in, she communicates her emotions in a running monologue, constant flashbacks, and facial expressions that will stay with you for weeks. “We went very in detail every day on set to pinpoint exactly what we wanted to convey to the audience what we want to feel at that point, why it was so important,” Aja says. But the level of the direction he wanted to give was impossible due to the cramped setting, so Aja communicated to Laurent through an earpiece.
While Oxygen is marketed as a sci-fi movie, it’s not clear until you watch it just how realistic some of this science fiction is. Much of the cryogenic technology is based on how cryogenics work currently, but a series of twists and turns brings Oxygen from a mere near-future science fiction thriller to a full-on post-apocalyptic space opera.
“Oxygen” is too busy gasping for itself to embrace the Socratic method, and so there’s a precious little payoff to the answers that it gradually teases out from MILO, and once the movie’s cards are on the table there isn’t any room left for it to play with them. Omicron barely has the energy required to post about what she’s learned along the way. While the light at the end of the tunnel illuminates a neat testament to the power of the survival instinct in all living things, Aja’s film loses so much air on the way to its grand finale that it barely has anything left to exhale by the time it’s over.
Final Score – [7/10]
Reviewed by – Ritika Kispotta
Follow her @KispottaRitika on Twitter (https://twitter.com/KispottaRitika)
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