Synopsis: A woman wakes in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of how she got there, and must find a way out before running out of air.
Stars: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi, Marc Saez
Director: Alexandre Aja
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: They say with age comes maturity and that goes double for the film industry. When French director Alexandre Aja started out in the early part of the new millennium, he hit the ground running with intense fare like 2003’s cult favorite High Tension. Testing the resolve of his audiences (at least in the U.S.) by refusing to shy away from blood, gore, guts, and other things that make us wimpy Americans cringe, Aja became the go-to guy if you needed your film to push the limits of the R-rating and, at times, good taste. His remake of The Hills Have Eyes gave some polish to Wes Craven’s grubby bare-bones original and how can we forget some of the visuals brought forth in 2008’s Mirrors (another remake, this time of a Korean film) and 2010’s 3D everything but the kitchen sink update of Piranha?
The old Aja was on display in 2019’s downright terrifying alligator flick Crawl, but something felt different in his approach to what could have been a chomp ‘em and leave ‘em box office gobbler. Even though he was working with a film shot almost entirely on a soundstage that relied heavily on CGI effects to create its big nasty reptiles, there was a much clearer focus on atmosphere and thrills instead of the pure bloodlust that had fueled Aja’s productions for nearly two decades. With the pandemic holding up plans for Aja’s big screen handling of the popular manga Space Adventure Cobra, there was an interesting opportunity for the director to step in on a project that had been drifting around for some time.
Originally set-up around Tinsel Town back in 2017 as O2 and set to star Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway, the actress never got around to making Oxygen and was replaced by Noomi Rapace (The Secrets We Keep) and a director who Aja had served as a producer for in past projects. With its small set-up making it easy to film amidst restrictions implemented during the COVID lockdown, Aja took over as director and brought in Mélanie Laurent as a substitute for Rapace who remained as an Executive Producer. Filming in July 2020 as Oxygen (or, Oxygène, s’il vous plaît) the movie was snapped up by Netflix and became one of the streaming services initial offerings in its summer series of weekly film releases.
As the film opens, a woman (Laurent, Enemy) struggles to free herself from a strange cocoon in a darkened chamber. She’s flat on her back and hooked up to a number of devices within this chamber with only a sentient operating system named M.I.L.O (Medical Interface Liaison Operator) to provide stilted answers to her questions. It’s not that he’s being evasive (or is he?) but she’s just not asking the correct questions to discover not just where she is but who she is. With no memory of her name or how long she’s been in what she learns is a cryogenic pod designed for hyper sleep (one that was decommissioned years earlier) she has to get M.I.L.O. to give her information that will help reconstruct the path to her imprisonment. She can call out to law enforcement but without a name or location they are unable to come to investigate, let alone believe her in the first place.
Representing another significant step forward for Aja, Oxygen might not ultimately score high on points in the originality department, but it does accomplish some respectable milestones along the way by keeping audiences engaged in the plight of our leading lady as she desperately tries to uncover her identity and how she came to be in her current situation. I wasn’t sure at first the concept would be able to cover the full run time without cheating in some way and breaking free at some point to explore outside the pod. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the entirety of Aja’s film takes place within the cryogenic pod; instead of that feeling oppressive it winds up adding a degree of energy to the action and Laurent’s performance as her O2 levels decrease and she realizes time is running out.
A mid-point twist is the boost of energy that winds up carrying Christie LeBlanc’s script through to the end and it’s a nice little rug pull that shouldn’t be all that surprising if you were paying close attention from the beginning. I wasn’t keeping as close of an eye as I usually do so I missed some obvious signs. Twist or not, there are ample opportunities for Aja to show how much he’s grown-up since those High Tension days of gruesome ugliness. Now, Aja seems entirely comfortable withholding some of the more squirm-inducing elements for when viewers are already a bit on the run, getting great mileage out of several sharp objects seen as benign medical tools making precise contact with skin.
There’s likely not a lot of replay value to be found in Oxygen once you’ve breathed it in but Laurent’s performance is so good, as is Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace) as the HAL 2000-ish voice of M.I.L.O., that it’s entirely worth catching at least once. The bonus is that you’ll see a director genre fans have long admired continuing to find sophistication in his work without losing the pointy edge that made him such a household name in the community to begin with.