Director: Alexandre Aja
Notable Cast: Melanie Laurent, Malik Zidi, Mathieu Amalric
Although I am quite a fan of Alexandre Aja as a director, the general concept of his latest film, the Netflix released Oxygen, where a woman wakes up trapped in a high-tech cryotube, is still pretty basic. The buried alive motif is a relatively common one in genre storytelling and there are quite a few films that already do it with impressive results. Hell, even Ryan Reynolds was in a decent one, Buried, just a decade ago.
Imagine my surprise that Oxygen, originally titled O2, comes out looking to set the archetype for the modern ‘buried alive’ angle. It's a tight and impressively balanced techno-thriller, tense in its use of both the suffocating setting and the reveal of increasingly devastating information, that maximizes its mystery and its science fiction angle to deliver thrills and occasional chills.
Oxygen’s intimate set, a technologically advanced cryotube with an impressively smart AI that only seems helpful if given the correct series of commands, creates a rather intriguing spin on the classic buried alive plotting. Think of this person/AI relationship as a dynamic that falls between 2001 and Moon in terms of how it works for both the character and narrative structure. Aja handles the pacing and tension with an admirably steady hand, knowing when to lighten the mood, punch forth a bit of horror, or double down on the sense of despair that comes with the quickly lowering levels of Oxygen in the tube. He keeps the film visually arresting, with plenty of inventive angles and shots for a film mostly focused on one spot, and uplifts the intriguing plot and reveals. This is a far cry from some of his more stylistic material, but it’s a welcome withdrawal that’s intentional and effective. Particularly in his use of mostly visual cues in the memory flashes that accompany the plot.
However, with the intention of giving credit where credit is due, it's the incredible work of actor Melanie Laurent in the lead role that steals this film. Her ability to work the entire range of the human emotional existence into 90 minutes while essentially only playing against a monotone computer voice is shockingly effective. She is entrusted with the task of carrying all of the emotional heft of the film and does so with clear precision. If the script, a very classic mystery with a sci-fi twist, and direction are meant to control the tone, she's the one truly driving it forward to its relatively open conclusions.
Considering the surprising enjoyment that I had watching this film, I was a bit shocked at the relative dismissal of Oxygen by my fellow cinephiles on the internet. However, this is a gem in Aja’s impressively varied filmography and one that I cannot recommend enough. It’s tight, efficient, and effective as a thriller that uses its horror and science fiction elements to almost near perfection. Don’t waste your breath and just click play on Oxygen.