Oxygen [Video Review]
All I Need is the Air That I Breathe: Aja Gets Air/Time in Unique Thriller
Alexandre Aja, initially classified as a member of the “Splat Pack” thanks to early prominence in the bloody High Tension (2003) and his formidable The Hills Have Eyes (2006) remake, delivers something intimate and comparably demure with his latest, Oxygen. It’s the director’s first French language title in almost twenty years, having hobnobbed about in English language productions and remakes, and if anything, proves how he’s segued into more subtle arenas without sacrificing his underlying interests of narratives focusing on (generally) women forced to rely on their own significant resiliency to overcome terrifying situations.
A commendable performance from Melanie Laurent, whose main costar is Mathieu Amalric as the A.I. manning the cryogenic chamber in which she mysteriously awakens, allows for the film’s successful navigation of increasingly loopy twists and turns which should satisfy cerebral genre fans who don’t mind a little bit of novel nonsense.
A woman (Laurent) awakens suddenly in a cryogenic chamber, her sleep disturbed due to a malfunction which has damaged her oxygen supply. Having no memory of who she is or how she came to be ensconced in this apparatus, the chamber’s software (voiced by Amalric) slowly reveals bits of information based on her continual questioning. Eventually she learns she’s Dr. Elizabeth Hansen, a scientist who specialized in cryogenics, but thanks to the machine’s ability to make phone calls to the outside world, she discovers the situation is more dire than she could have imagined. As her oxygen level slowly depletes, her desperation grows.
In essence, Laurent’s Elizabeth wakes up screaming, tearing her way through a veritable cocoon in what plays like a birth sequence wherein she must immediately confront the possibility of her death. The isolated protagonist with only a charismatic robot as a co-star has long been a genre staple, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Moon, and the recent I Am Mother all taking perverse glee in delivering maniacal depictions of artificial intelligence. But Aja is also reminiscent of other unique exercises, like Buried or even another Duncan Jones title, Source Code.
As we piece together the mystery of Dr. Hansen’s entrapment, with suggestions of malfeasance thanks to her controversial area of study, Laurent’s emotional laments to the outside world is like the futuristic version of Barbara Stanwyck’s bedridden harpy in Sorry, Wrong Number (1947). Eventually, what’s really going is revealed, the surprise of which allows for this claustrophobic scenario to chug along without losing its stride as revelations allow the film to peek outside the chamber through flashbacks and some illuminating aesthetics which align Liz as a neon religious icon.
Aja returns to work with his Crawl (2019) DP Maxime Alexandre, although Oxygen has hardly the same visual palette in this highly contained universe. Amalric seems to be having fun as the prickly and authentically precise helpmate, but this is Laurent’s show all the way and serves as another reminder of her prowess.