Movie Review: Oxygen

Oxygen is a timely psychological drama and survivalist thriller from French horror filmmaker, Alexander Aja. It’s actually the perfect film for our times, leveraging the oxygen depletion now associated with the pandemic, focusing on a single actor to adhere to social distancing regulations and tying in with the cabin fever feel of being in lockdown. Cleverly twirling these themes into a story, we now have another great example of a boxed in single location film.

Oxygen journeys with a woman who wakes up in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of her identity or the events leading to her encapsulation. The computerised chamber alerts her to low Oxygen levels as she questions the voice recognition operating system. The amnesiac slowly becomes a detective, trying to remain cool, calm and collected as time and Oxygen run out. Phoning for help, searching the web, having flashbacks and trying to decipher what’s real, she frantically tries to stay alive and escape the pod.

There have been a number of claustrophobic single location, single word title and primary actor films such as Buried, Brake and Locke. Requiring clever editing, versatile cinematography and a screenplay that could work as a radio play, these modest productions often prove to be surprisingly good. It’s a real showcase for actors, who are forced to drive the drama almost single-handedly, their faces occupying 90% of the frames. Ryan Reynolds experienced being buried alive, Stephen Dorff tried to MacGyver his way out of the boot of a car and Tom Hardy grappled with life over the course of an eventful drive. Being able to control these environments means there can be a tighter focus on the screenplay, visuals and performance. Being under the spotlight, these elements also become so much more important in captivating an audience’s attention, being visually appealing in confined spaces and translating the nuances of an up close and personal turn.

Oxygen is probably the most ambitious one of these “boxed in” films to date, taking place almost entirely in a computerised cryogenic chamber. Having flashbacks much like 127 Hours gives viewers some breathing room and relief from the chamber, which while more roomy and aesthetically appealing than a coffin, still requires flair from a creative and inventive filmmaker. What’s also refreshing is that Melanie Laurent is the main protagonist. A beautiful woman with a curious visage, Oxygen requires that her face is naked, allowing every micro expression to translate to film.

“Hypersleep is overrated.”

Laurent is best known to international audiences for Inglorious Basterds and Beginners. In Oxygen, she’s performing in French (you can switch to English), which allows her to act with fewer barriers for greater authenticity and feeling. While Laurent delivers a fine performance, capturing the panic, desperation and venturing into more coolheaded terrain, her elusive character’s always out-of-reach. You can relate to her situation as a person but the screenplay struggles to create enough contact points to forge an emotional connection for the character. A slow unfurling of character based on the amnesiac plot, she’s just as much a mystery to herself, yet the character discovery never draws warmth and remains distant, making Oxygen a bit of a fish tank drama.

As a sci-fi mystery thriller, it remains intriguing as the detective story evolves from the confines of a bioform capsule to something with far-reaching implications. Starting as a visceral survivalist story, Aja broadens the scope of Oxygen to become something much more thought-provoking and grand even. Using the countdown tension, he coats the story in layers of new information and rules as the mystery woman gets a fresh understanding of her predicament. This continual reinvention, clever edit and dynamic cinematography keeps the chrysalis plot captivating and quite literally breathtaking.

While beautifully realised, thought-provoking and a good example of this kind of storytelling format, there is a reason most of these movies hover around the 90 minute mark. Oxygen is overlong by about 20 minutes, time it uses to embroider the overarching backdrop to this story. It’s a commendable film with a smart concept, a sharp performance and a clear vision, yet the extended running time and lagging emotional connection do undermine the entertainment value. The apparent distance is smoothed over by Laurent’s full performance and the exhilarating sound and lights show, but it could have been so much more.

The bottom line: Breathtaking