Oxygen (France/United States, 2021)

May 12, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Oxygen Poster

One of the age-old questions about movies is whether a terrible ending can ruin an otherwise solid motion picture. In the case of Oxygen, the bad aftertaste from the contrived and unconvincing conclusion diminishes the experience but doesn’t completely undo the prior 90 minutes of mystery and tension. Oxygen is therefore a mixed bag although there’s a sense that it could have been something better.

The entire film transpires within the tight confines of a cryogenic capsule where a woman, Elizabeth Hansen (Melanie Laurent), has been awakened early as a result of a fault or an accident. Initially, her memories are scrambled; she doesn’t know who or where she is. Her only “companion” is the voice of the medical computer, M.I.L.O. (Mathieu Amalric, with a nod to Douglas Rain’s unforgettable intonations as HAL 9000), that monitors her vital stats and the general condition of the capsule. Trapped and with only limited options for making contact with the outside world, Elizabeth also struggles with a “ticking clock” problem: her limited oxygen supply is dwindling and, when it reaches zero, she will suffocate. She is in a race against time to piece together her identity, understand where she is, and find a way to survive.

Director Alexandre Aja has advanced since the days when he made raw, nerve-wracking horror films like High Tension, but he still has a good feel for how to amp up the suspense in confined quarters. (He made the underrated 2019 B-movie Crawl, where a woman is trapped in a flooded basement with a group of alligators.) Those affected by claustrophobia may find watching Oxygen to be at times an uncomfortable experience. With limited space to work with, there are restrictions regarding camera placement and movement and actress Melanie Laurent gets a lot of close-ups. Aja is able to avoid monotony by incorporating flashbacks of Elizabeth as she reconstructs a sketch of her life before she ended up in her current predicament.

The film is in some ways reminiscent of 2010’s Buried, which took the viewer into a buried wooden coffin alongside Ryan Reynolds. Although the storylines are different, the directors’ goals are similar at least insofar as the impact on the audience is concerned. Aja not only wants to keep the level of tension high but he delights in spoon-feeding the revelations of the narrative’s various mysteries. However, he is unable to stick the ending. Once all the questions have been answered, there’s a moment of anticlimax before things get preposterous. The final scenes feel like they have been grafted on from a different movie. They don’t work within the milieu Aja has created and it causes Oxygen to asphyxiate at the end.

Melanie Laurent is excellent as Elizabeth. Playing the role in real-time, she displays all the qualities one would expect from someone trapped in her untenable situation: bewilderment, panic, and (eventually) a steely determination to do whatever is necessary. Although Laurent hasn’t shifted entirely to Hollywood productions, she is sufficiently well-known internationally for there to be a degree of familiarity. The film is in French but the dialogue is sufficiently limited that those who balk at reading subtitles won’t feel overwhelmed.

When Oxygen works, which is for most of its first 3/4ths, it’s a result of the fusion of an engaging screenplay, which parcels out surprises evenly while focusing on the ordeal of the main character, with the efforts of the director and actress to dramatize everything. Unlike many movies about people trapped in confined spaces, Oxygen doesn’t take the viewer outside of the capsule (except during the flashbacks). The story is wed tightly to Elizabeth’s perspective and we unravel the mysteries along with her. If not for the contrived resolution, this might have been one of the better little thrillers to emerge from the pandemic. Instead, it feels a little disappointing, if only for the unlikely “twist” applied during the closing moments.

Oxygen (France/United States, 2021)

Director: Alexandre Aja
Cast: Melanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric
Screenplay: Christie LeBlanc
Cinematography: Maxime Alexandre
Music: Robin Coudert
U.S. Distributor: Netflix
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2021-05-12
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Genre: Science Fiction/Thriller
Subtitles: In French with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1