Alexandre Aja, one of the most prominent figures of the French New Extremity movement has made somewhat of a successful transition to Hollywood. His remake of The Hills Have Eyes set a new example of how remakes should be done and his previous film, the gator-thriller Crawl was a commercial and critical success. Aja now returns to France and brings us Oxygen, one of the tensest thrillers we’ve seen in a while.
A woman (Mélanie Laurent) wakes up in a pod, encased in a strange material and struggles to breathe and break free. Once she does, she deduces she must be in a medical cryo unit but can’t remember why or who she is. Her cries for help aren’t heard and she is stuck, with a very limited supply of oxygen, which she is using up fast. So begins her desperate attempts to alert help and to build her memory to unlock the reason she’s in the unit.
Oxygen is a simple film. Set entirely in one location, with one actress, and a simple narrative. Worry not, there are twists galore, some of them which test the limits of suspension of disbelief, but Aja controls the narrative and creates tension so well, it’s easy to buy into the wilder plot twists. Filmed in 2020, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Oxygen is possibly one of the best films to be made during a time which forced creatives to truly reconsider how to make art. Alongside Rob Savage’s Host, Oxygen is imaginative and turns the restrictions to its advantage, proving that creativity can flourish even at times of desperation.
We later learn the woman is called Liz. Generally, we constantly learn things exactly at the same time as Liz does, adding to the film’s tension. In the era where trailers give a lot away and the internet is full of spoilers, there is something deliciously frustrating about being kept in the dark for most of the film’s run time. It heightens the excitement and gets the viewer emotionally more involved in the narrative. If there is a fault to Oxygen, it’s the tendency to get overly sentimental when there isn’t room for it. The film is at its best when it focuses on Liz’s struggles to find a way out and shows off the character’s resourcefulness.
The film wouldn’t work without a solid lead to carry us through the narrative. Thankfully, Melanie Laurent is exemplary in the lead role and her performance is intense and relatable. She effortlessly balances Liz’s growing panic, fear and frustration without ever succumbing to melodrama. Even when Oxygen takes itself a little too seriously and the narrative gets a bit out of hand, Laurent’s performance is there to ground it in something human, something real.
The real star however is Aja’s technical direction. It’s precise and sharp and greatly aided by the cinematography by his long-time collaborator Maxime Alexandre. Alexandre’s camera makes the most out of the small space and communicates the claustrophobia experienced by Liz while never feeling stale. It feels endlessly inventive and imaginative but never gimmicky. The same can be said of the editing by Stéphane Roche and Jean Rabasse’s impressive production design.
Aja’s confident direction and Laurent’s powerful performance make Oxygen a must-see film. Despite it’s futuristic setting and production design, its strength is its old-school approach to the script. This is a straight-forward, yet twist-heavy thriller that is lean and mean, in the best possible way. Oxygen also allows Aja to draw inspiration his horror background and use it to create a terrifying experience which draws the viewer in and doesn’t let go until the credits are rolling.
Oxygen streams on Netflix May 12.