It’s been almost a month since “Oxygen” was released on Netflix, and it’s been on my short list of overdue movies for me to review. I finally got the chance and I’m disappointed it took me this long to experience it. This French-language science fiction thriller is directed and produced by Alexandre Aja, a native Frenchman who is most well known for his horror pictures like “The Hills Have Eyes”, “Mirrors”, “Piranha 3D”, “Horns” and “Crawl”. However “Oxygen” is one of his few mainstream releases in his native language and went through a rotating list of lead actresses and directors eventually settling on Aja with Mélanie Laurent in the lead. Malik Zidi and Mathieu Amalric are the only other two major performers in the movie making up an extremely small cast fitting its pandemic-era filming in 2020. The final result is a story about a woman who awakens with no memory of who she is trapped inside a cryogenic unit running low on oxygen forcing her to piece together her situation and find a way out. It’s a splendid, claustrophobic thriller that mixes a grounded performance with science fiction elements appropriate for a post-isolation reality.
The idea of “Oxygen” is pretty simple and keeps the action pretty well confined to one specific setting. A woman (whose identity is revealed as part of a twist in the film so I won’t spoil it here) must find her way out of an oxygen deprived chamber with no idea of where she is or how she got there. It’s a premise we’ve seen many times over and honestly it never gets old because any film that can make us feel that sense of dread is worth your time in my opinion. What makes this movie special is the sci-fi elements around it. The woman’s only companion is an A.I. Medical Interface Liaison Officer appropriately named MILO (Mathieu Amalric) who serves as her connection to the outside world and provides pieces of the mystery when the right questions are asked. The AI is also programmed to end her life if her life support systems, in this case her oxygen level, gets to low making it just as much an enemy as well as her only connection to the answers she needs. What could have felt like a drawn-out premise feels well crafted given its surprising length of 101 minutes for an idea that could have easily fit into less than an hour and a half. The pacing and reveals are well handled while the script is compitantly written given that most of the dialogue is driven by the mystery woman specifically. All of this makes for an easy investment even for those who are annoyed by subtitles considering that this film is spoken completely in French. The energy and relatable and believable dialogue do a great job keeping you interested despite having to read to words to understand them…unless you speak French of course. There were even times where I wasn’t looking at the screen but the performance along crossed language barriers and allowed me to understand exactly what was happening in the moment which is an impressive feat.
The claustrophobic element of this film are what really sell it though and while we do escape the confines of the pod from time to time in flashbacks most of the action takes place inside the pod as the woman attempts to figure out why she is there and how to escape her situation with an ever-present ticking clock of the lowering oxygen level. Mélanie Laurent provides a powerhouse front and center performance as the focus of all the action shifting between calm composure and emotional outbursts with each new revelation and setback. Considering the isolation many of us felt during COVID, this film feels perfectly timed in more ways than one especially as we learn more and more about why she is where she is. As the audience we learn all the secrets and answers along with her, piecing together evidence and never knowing more than she does which makes every reveal and potential way out feel just as gratifying to us as the character and just as frustrating when a new roadblock gets in her way. It’s easy to sympathize with her and understand her frustration which only adds to this being such an engaging experience.
If there was anything to say bad about “Oxygen” it might be its derivative nature, which even then it feels like an inventive spin on the idea, and its dependence on science mumbo jumbo in order to justify many of its stakes. If you can get past that though “Oxygen” is a relatively simple yet delightfully layered and character-focused sci-fi thriller. It’s difficult for me to explore in any more depth the more thought-provoking ideas that come from its story because many of them are explored through the twist reveals and, as I said, going in to this film blind and learning along with the protagonist is part of the fun. Simply put, “Oxygen” is a well crafted and executed genre piece anchored by solid direction and writing, a fun claustrophobic setting, and a terrific single performance that all add up to one of the best Netflix has offered us so far in 2021.