With films like High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes, Alexandre Aja is known for his brutality. In those, the heroes must survive an onslaught of violence that is graphic, loud, and terrifying. Even with his most recent creature feature, Crawl, it was all about the awe. But now, with Netflix Original Oxygen, Aja has stripped his filmmaking down to a foundation – and her name is Elizabeth, played by Mélanie Laurent.
Directed by Aja and written by Christie LeBlanc, Oxygen stars Laurent, with voice work from Mathieu Amalric, Eric Herson-Macarel, and Malik Zidi. In this French survival thriller, we follow a young woman who wakes up in a cryogenic pod after she wakes up and is made aware that she has only an hour and a half of oxygen to live. If the claustrophobic situation isn’t terrifying enough, she doesn’t remember who she is or how she ended up there. First, she learns her name, and as the oxygen keeps running out, she must rebuild her memory to find a way out of her nightmare, all with a voice-over narrating the closer she gets to death.
Oxygen is stunning. With a tight 90-minute run-time, the sound design, the visuals trained on Laurent’s face, and her acting itself all make for a film that feels small but has a big impact. By utilizing science fiction tech only when necessary, Aja is able to tread the fear of being trapped in a coffin while allowing for a greater mystery to take shape. Elizabeth is grounded by MILO (Amalric), the AI tech she uses to piece back her life. Shown overhead as what resembles a speaker, a circle pulsing to the information being transmitted, the way Aja blends technology and fear works extremely well. By also cutting the scenes with silent memories of a world outside the cryogenic pod, the emotion is palpable, a life she’s not only far from but also one that brings a longing.
Laurent is spectacular. Not just is she emotive in every frame, but her voice is haunting, it resonates, it builds tension, and her performance is one to watch in the original French language instead of listening to one of the four other dubbed languages. In a small space, Laurent makes the most of it, attempting to free herself, attempting to survive. As she fights herself to maintain calm while intrusive anxious thoughts push through, Laurent presents something terrifying. Trying everything you can with little to no success.
Oxygen is toned down when it comes to body horror and violence, two things that Aja does extremely well. Instead, he uses small moments like the sound of Elizabeth’s nails scratching to pry open her pod, a shock to keep her locked in, or a needle prick to make sure she’s still alive. As Elizabeth begins to question reality, she tries to ground herself with pain, and she tries to venter herself on her body. As she gets closer to her identity, she keeps getting farther from the truth, and as the confusion builds for Elizabeth, it also builds for the viewer.
The confusion that Aja builds in Oxygen is hard to meet. It’s a deteriorating sort of fear that builds from memories and changes as we learn more. Unsure of what to believe, it’s hard to relate directly with Elizabeth, making some elements of the story feel stiff.
Finally, the film’s third act twists unexpectedly, and as Elizabeth races toward her memories, she keeps falling further behind. How do you solve a problem when the information in your brain is sitting in a fog, hidden? The increasing urgency and hopelessness is amplified by Aja darkening each shot, making Elizabeth smaller and smaller as time goes on. As we learn more about where she is and the danger around her, the film’s hopelessness takes hold, and as more information uncovers, confusion sets in.
Overall, Oxygen is a fantastic survival film. Aja’s deft hand is near perfect in framing Elizabeth in every moment, but it is Laurent’s performance that is shocking, emotional, and strong. She pushes the film, and even while some moments lack catharsis in the film’s end, the journey Laurent goes on is well worth the watch.
Oxygen is streaming exclusively on Netflix on May 13, 2021.
- Rating - 7.5/107.5/10
Oxygen is a fantastic survival film. Aja’s deft hand is near perfect in framing Elizabeth in every moment, but it is Laurent’s performance that is shocking, emotional, and strong. She pushes the film, and even while some moments lack catharsis in the film’s end, the journey Laurent goes on is well worth the watch.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.