Int’l Critics Line: Todd McCarthy On Alexandre Aja’s Netflix Thriller ‘Oxygen’


If you’ve felt physically trapped over the past 14 months, you’ll feel right at home in Oxygen (Oxygène), a locked-in-a-box conceptual thriller that more or less succeeds almost entirely due to Mélanie Laurent’s resourceful performance as a woman who has no idea why she’s become trapped in a tiny cryogenic pod.

The Netflix offering, which debuts May 12, does feel rather like an exercise the filmmakers have set for themselves just to see if they could pull it off; to that end, they would have benefitted from strictly limiting themselves to a 90-minute running time. It’s also likely that this is a film that would play better to captive audiences in a darkened theater, rather than at home where you can put it on pause, take a break or grab a beer. All the same, this French-language slice of speculative fiction boasts smarts and skills that will intrigue genre aficionados and features a lead character who resembles an apprentice Ripley.

Any number of suspense dramas have benefitted from extreme confinement — Alien, Buried, Locke, Gravity, The Descent and Room just for starters. But screenwriters Alexandre Aja, a director who has obliterated boundaries of civility with the likes of High Tension and the 2006 NC-17-rated remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and Christie LeBlanc have now perhaps set a new standard for tight confinement. The entire film is set within a cramped, cockpit-like chamber just big enough to accommodate the film’s only visible character, Liz, a doctor of cryogenics (the science of re-animating life forms), after she’s been maintained at low temperatures.

Coming to consciousness, Liz finds herself in cold quarters dominated by a labyrinth of wires, tubes and medical equipment, most of it hooked up to Liz’s body. Quite plausibly under the circumstances, she asks, in case anyone happens to be listening, “What’s going on?,” to which a disembodied voice calmly replies, “I can’t satisfy that request for now.”

So Liz needs to find some work-arounds. As her memory is said to have been erased, she tries to rapidly refresh it by calling up images of her past, including nostalgic nature scenes and moments with her husband. Unlike the insidious Hal of 2001, however, the talkative disembodied entity know as M.I.L.O. (for Medical Interface Liaison Operator) turns out to be a helpful sort if spoken to properly, making it possible for Liz to reach the outside world with her phone, an odd oversight on the part of her captors, it would seem. Mathieu Amalric’s smooth vocal delivery stands in sharp contrast to the increasing hysteria of the lone human character.

The big worry is that the oxygen level in Liz’s little chamber is falling fast — after a half-hour, she’s down to only 31 percent — so she has to think and talk very quickly if she’s to have any hope at all of surviving.

It wouldn’t be fair to reveal much more, beginning with whether or how Liz maneuvers a dire situation to her advantage within such a tight frame. Far more than with any narrative plausibility, the film’s moderate degree of success stems from Laurent’s live-wire performance and the ways Aja and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre keep the film visually alive at all times without sliding into show-off excesses. At every opportunity, the camera darts and charges around like a kinetic insect, a trait Liz herself seems to absorb in her mad-dash effort to figure out what’s going on and try to survive.

There are Big Picture answers to the conundrums posed by the film, which some viewers will buy into while others may reject as sucker-punch tricks. Best to concentrate on Laurent, who covers vast emotional ground while being confined to the tightest possible quarters and assaulted by far too many nasty pieces of metal.

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