Speaking hyperbolically, there are few things worse in life than waking up in unfamiliar surroundings, not knowing who you are, or how you got there. It’s all the worse, though, if you happen to be Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) — or a character played by Mélanie Laurent — and you find yourself awakening from a deep cryogenic sleep inside a semi-futuristic, newly-malfunctioning pod. That same pod might just double as your last resting place if you can’t escape before you run out of oxygen. That marks the starting point for Oxygen (“Oxygène”), director Alexandre Aja’s (Piranha 3D, The Hills Have Eyes) engrossing follow-up to 2019’s gorily entertaining gator-fest, Crawl, and the starting point for Laurent’s singularly desperate character and her journey toward self-realization, self-actualization, and quite possibly, survival.
Subtlety or nuance has never been Aja’s strong suit as a genre filmmaker and his latest is no different, opening with Laurent’s initially unnamed character awakening inside a cocoon-like membrane to alarm bells and warnings about impending oxygen depletion and the occupant’s possible demise in less than an hour. Ripping through the membrane — an all too obvious analog to birth and/or rebirth — Laurent’s character can barely move inside the claustrophobic, coffin-like pod, though the resident AI, MILO (Medical Interface Liaison Operator), voiced by the perpetually soft-spoken Mathieu Amalric, offers limited assistance to Laurent’s character, up to and including whatever answers it can provide or withhold to keep the plot moving forward rather than backward or sideways. MILO also functions as Oxygen’s sole source of unintentional humour, offering, for example, a sedative when Laurent’s character understandably begins to wig out.
Initially identified only as “Omicron 267,” Laurent’s character works backward, partly through her own fragmented memories of another, pre-pod life, and partly through MILO’s Google-like resources, to uncover her real name, Elizabeth Hansen and her profession (left unspoiled here for obvious reasons). She’s desperate to find out anything useful about the manufacturer of the malfunctioning pod, like where it’s actually located, and how to circumvent the pod’s admin codes (restarting or rebooting isn’t an option, apparently). She even uses MILO to contact the outside world, but with limited information about her actual location (another revelation that’s best left unspoiled), her options narrow with every passing moment.
Working from Christie LeBlanc’s ingenious, inventive script, Aja keeps the camera firmly on Laurent for all but a few moments of Oxygen’s running time, often hovering inches away from her face as she experiences every possible emotion from despair to hope and back again. She also goes through at least one iteration of another Elisabeth’s (Kübler Ross) stages of grief or mourning, shifting from denial to anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately, acceptance and it’s all timed to Oxygen’s increasingly expansive, credulity-straining turns, twists, and switchbacks.
Those plot turns, twists, and switchbacks take their inspiration from far-flung influences, most notably Ryan Reynold’s man-in-a-box star turn, Buried, and Tom Hardy’s man-in-a-car vehicle, Locke, along with several other, genre-specific films that even mentioned in passing would function as spoilers. Whatever Oxygen’s inspirations, it succeeds or fails on three key components: script, direction, and acting. LeBlanc’s script wears its numerous influences lightly, while Aja’s restrained, unobtrusive direction rarely brings attention to itself, letting the central story unfold organically, ultimately leaving Laurent to carry the film — primarily through her voice and facial expressions.
Oxygen begins streaming on Netflix on Wednesday, May 12th.