The Netflix-released Oxygen is a tense and claustrophobic sci-fi thriller from French director Alexandre Aja. After an effectively disorientating opening, full of flashing red alarms and jarring images, we find Liz Hansen (Mélanie Laurent) awakening inside a cryogenic pod, unsure of how she got there and barely able to remember a thing.
She quickly discovers she has been revived because of a system malfunction, leaving her with approximately 40 minutes of oxygen and no way to open the pod. So, Liz is in a race against time – escape the cryogenic pod before the air runs out.
And that is about as much as we can say about it. In terms of this review, Oxygen is what we movie reviewers like to call ‘a bloody nightmare’ (that’s a technical term) because there is almost nothing else that can be revealed about the story without giving away something significant.
Experiencing events as they unfold through Liz’s discoveries and detective work makes Oxygen an excellent first-time watch, but going into it for a second time, or with any more plot knowledge than I’ve provided, will dilute its impact. Therefore, if you’re interested in seeing Oxygen, take this advice and do so sooner rather than later, to lessen the chances of spoiler exposure.
Alexandre Aja has established himself as one of the most crucial horror directors around, coming to prominence with Haute Tension (aka High Tension aka Switchblade Romance), an originator of the New French Extremity, before proving the exception to the remake rule with his fierce and nihilistic The Hills Have Eyes reboot. Aja’s last outing was the enjoyable reptile rampage Crawl, but for this writer his masterpiece remains the delirious Piranha 3D, which cranked the exploitation metre up to eleven in – I’ll say it – one of the best horror movies this century. While Oxygen is more reserved than what we’re used to seeing from Aja, he still manages to torque the tension and flex his horror muscles when it’s required.
But the real hero of Oxygen is Mélanie Laurent, who singlehandedly carries the movie in a role that requires her to be on screen for 99% of the film – much like Tom Hardy’s acclaimed performance in Locke, of which Laurent is every bit the equal. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Laurent is so good, especially if you’re familiar with her performances in Mike Mills’ wonderful Beginners or Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. She delivers in spades here, ensuring we’re always fully invested in Liz’s struggle as she shifts between out-of-control despair and level-headed problem solving.
There’s a pandemic flavour to the backstory that also makes it timely, and although there is misdirection, it’s never cheap and it never feels like the movie is trying to cheat you. There’s also a distinctive score from regular Aja collaborator ROB (the stage name for French musician/composer Robin Coudert) that nails the right atmosphere.
Oxygen certainly deserves plaudits for trying to do something interesting with its approach to race-against-time suspense. Aja and Laurent have made a tight, compelling thriller, and it’s refreshing to not know where a movie is headed. Although we can’t tell you a lot about it, we can confirm it’s solidly crafted, unpredictable and, importantly, well worth seeing.
‘Oxygen’ is now streaming on Netflix – right HERE.