Movie Review – Oxygen (2021)

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Oxygen, 2021.

Directed by Alexandre Aja.
Starring Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi, Marc Saez, Vincent Maraval, Brahim Chioua, Noémie Devide, Grégory Levasseur, Lyah Valade, Pascal Germain, Marie Lemiale, Laura Boujenah, Cathy Cerda, and Éric Herson-Macarel.

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SYNOPSIS:

A woman wakes in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of how she got there and must find a way out before running out of air.

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As soon as the recognizable Netflix logo and associated audio sound bite disappear, the next frame of Oxygen shows a rat roaming around in what is revealed to be a maze as the camera pans back. It’s such a random visual that I assumed it was going to be an additional logo, this one for a company director Alexandre Aja (Crawl, one of his more recent works that give a good idea of what to expect here, although this is more ambitious) might be associated with and decided to take one last glance at my emails before eliminating all distractions. Within that five-second time span, I came back to see Oxygen plastered over the screen; apparently, the rat maze has something to do with the mystery on hand.

From there, the setting switches to a cryogenic pod where Mélanie Laurent’s Elizabeth Hansen (I’m not even going to bother divulging the smallest of details about the character as the majority of the film’s enjoyment comes from every discovery, no matter how basic or game-changing) awakes. She also happens to be covered from head to toe by an organic cocoon that she eventually tears apart from the inside. Furthermore, she has an IV hooked up to her, a cerebral device monitoring her brain activity, and amnesia. Her only means to get to the bottom of what’s going on is interacting with MILO (voiced by Mathieu Amalric), a sort of medical bay version of Siri that can access all kinds of information so long as it’s not restricted. Also, time is essential considering critical parts of the pod have malfunctioned with oxygen set to run out between 45 and 72 minutes (more or less, in real-time and depending on the rate Elizabeth exhausts herself).

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Coming clean, Oxygen is one of the more difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write in my near-decade of experience doing this so far, mostly because of the script from Christie LeBlanc (making her debut feature-length screenwriting effort) lives and dies upon reveals and twists. Fortunately, there are quite a few genuinely surprising revelations here (one of which is accompanied by a sequence of mesmerizing cinematography that beautifully loops right back to an eye of Elizabeth). We also learn things about this depiction of Earth and humanity that are intriguing but never actually explored, as if it only exists to keep the logic of this thriller intact.

Determined to really mess with viewers’ minds, especially Elizabeth, Oxygen brings to the forefront the possibility that some of what is happening could be psychotic hallucinations due to extended isolation. By acknowledging this and then taking a specific route, the mystery aspect becomes more complex even if the story never quite comes together for the desired emotional impact. The situation forces Elizabeth to utilize MILO’s limited functions to gather knowledge about her own identity and confirm and debunking certain things she sees and hears (she can call and connect to a few supporting characters, including a police captain inside the science and forensics department).

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Similar experiences have been crafted recently (Buried with Ryan Reynolds comes to mind as the most direct parallel), so it’s not necessarily a new concept but one seemingly always challenging to pull off successfully. There is admirable ambition with the theme of eternal love (trust me, that’s still intentionally vague as to keep what’s really going a secret) that Alexandre Aja is going for. And although it never fully resonates dramatically, the stressed and terrified claustrophobic performance from Melanie Laurent elevates what is, ultimately, a series of revelations escalating in privacy and scope. That scope might be cast a bit too wide, but Oxygen will still take a good amount of breath away.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★

Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]

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