‘Oxygen’ review: A tight thriller full of reveals that will leave you breathless
And some folks would say Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in Passengers had it rough! In Oxygen, our lead Elizabeth (Mélanie Laurent) will encounter more than just the crushing dread from waking up way before schedule — there is also the inability to leave the pod. At all.
Does this make Crawl a trial run for director Alexandre Aja in making a roller coaster ride out of the limited space available to him? Most likely (Aja’s collaborator Franck Khalfoun headlined this prior, which would have been a dream for marketing à la “the film O2 from the maker of P2). Will it be harder to dole out cinematic tricks and treats from following just one person in a capsule rather than a woman, her father and a dog around one house? Definitely. Yet, watching Oxygen, or to be more precise watching Laurent staying in a supine position, you feel like Aja has it all down. He’s not having any difficulty, but you and Elizabeth will, as intended and desired. If that isn’t proof Oxygen has the claustrophobic goods to deliver.
Although Aja memorably splattered onto the scene with uber-gory hits, which “earns” him membership into The Splat Pack, he seems to function at a higher level when outside of the comfortable, crimson-aplenty zone. Looking back at his genre oeuvre, Oxygen spills the least blood; the premise doesn’t call for much, but that doesn’t mean it’s restricted outright either. So haemophilic was the eye-for-eye Death Sentence from James Wan, also a Splat Pack guy, it confuses the experience. For Oxygen, Aja thankfully takes a step back and is willing to twist insides through other, subtler sources like the constantly escalating proceedings writer Christie LeBlanc has concocted and the gripping displays of internal ebbs-flows-riptides trio from Laurent. Très galant, not to mention it’s the best way to tackle this single-set story.
On the surface, and from its trailers, Oxygen is about a woman looking to escape her cryosleep chamber, oftentimes requiring the assistance of both the built-in Medical Interface Liaison Operator/M.I.L.O. (Mathieu Amalric) and his ability to phone others. Expectedly, LeBlanc employs the friction between user and (soothingly voiced to great discomfort) machine to court drama, suspense and even whips of horror, and in all honesty the entire film could just revolve around this. She’s asking for help, but he won’t comply — or he’s helping, but she isn’t sure if it will really, well, help (Jean Rabasse’s sleek-but-aseptic designs and Maxime Alexandre’s creeping camerawork play major roles in maintaining doubt). Then, a jolting revelation. One more. Encore. Laurent always reacts accordingly, on occasions just by altering her diction. With every retraction of the curtain, or reduction of the oxygen level, the unshakable thought that LeBlanc will trip herself up no matter how synchronized to Elizbaeth’s plight Laurent grows, and afterward you find yourself foolish for thinking it in the first place. She is holding the flag here; Aja knows the best visuals to support the notion.
Sure, Oxygen is another filmic “escape room,” but with clear control and tight cooperation Aja and company also have us appreciate the furniture, even if they resemble the current state of our lives. Everything that has been placed here supports the central problem-solving component and contends with the biggest problem of all — who are you when the universe caves in? Yes, the film does tap existentialism’s shoulder. While that might be too much for some, or for the concept itself, do note that when it does this you aren’t rendered a passenger to the experience. Through thickening anxiety and thinning air, you’re beside Elizabeth. If need be, editor Stéphane Roche will get the signal to make you Elizabeth. Try to stay calm when that happens.
Netflix will release Oxygen into the atmosphere on May 12.