Unpopped Kernels: Oxygen (2021) – Review

by Jordan King

Oxygen, the latest feature from The Hills Have Eyes rebootand Crawl director Alexandre Aja (and the French director’s first work in his mother tongue since 2003 slasher Switchblade Romance), sees Melanie Laurent in a tricky situation to say the least. Having torn her way out of a womb-like cocoon of sorts, Laurent’s character finds herself trapped in a cryogenic chamber with a rapidly depleting oxygen supply. Unsure who she is, unsure where she is, but absolutely certain that her life very much hangs in the balance, Laurent – assisted by Mathieu Amalric’s HAL 9000-like A.I system M.I.L.O – faces a race against time to rediscover who she is and find a way out before the clock, and the air supply, hits zero.

Understandably, the folks at Netflix are very keen to keep the secrets of Oxygen for as long as humanly possible. Somewhat frustratingly, that means that the above ‘elevator pitch’ summary of the film is about as deep as I dare go in terms of plot divulgence. That being said, it would not be a spoiler to state that Aja’s latest film combines the locked-room, single location thriller best executed elsewhere in the likes of Buried and Locke, with an amnesiac mystery that harks back to films such as Nolan’s Memento. In marrying the two niche sub-genres of cinema however, the cocktail Aja creates of a (mostly) real time fight for survival and a deftly woven slow-burn of revelation upon revelation adds up to an experience that is utterly unique, and as deliciously head-scratching as it is disconcertingly nail-biting.

Oxygen Review: Mélanie Laurent Gasps for Air in Silly Netflix Thriller |  IndieWire

In its best moments, Oxygen synthesises images, camera movements, and ideas that achieve the timeless futurism of Blade Runner and the existential crisis inducing awe of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is a sequence in the film’s final third that centres around that most potent of vessels for the camera’s lens to find – the human eye – which is just breathtaking (pun very much intended). Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre excels at eking out every possibility presented by the otherwise very limited chamber setting, with pendulous camera motions and serpentine manoeuvres around Laurent’s body heightening the claustrophobia of the film while didactically probing the cryochamber for new perspectives and ideas that reflect Laurent’s attempts to puzzle out her identity and her predicament. Jean Rabasee’s inspired production design, clinical and technologically tangible to a fault, complete with a snaking probe that writhes around quite chillingly throughout to attempt to sedate our protagonist, aids Alexandre’s work brilliantly and deserves to be singled out for praise.

Even on its most basic level, Oxygen is a slickly executed, cleverly written piece of semi-speculative science fiction. Screenwriter Christie LeBlanc layers the film’s revelations as organic developments in the lead’s situation, with minor details later taking on major significance and major reveals retrospectively adding poignance to the little things that have come before. And to bring the screenplay to life, Mélanie Laurent, who most will remember best for her incendiary turn in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, delivers a fully committed performance that breaks from the constraints of the pod she finds herself entombed within to offer a portrait of humanity at its frayed-nerve, full-hearted best. Amalric’s gently sardonic M.I.L.O compliments Laurent’s physical and emotional intensity commendably too, offering some unlikely moments of levity in a film that rarely wastes a second that could otherwise be spent making us feel overcome with panic.

Aja’s film – which tellingly opens on a rat in a maze – is a deceptively clever diegesis on memory, purpose, progress, and the human cost of seeking our place in this universe. Even though Oxygen was conceived pre-COVID, you cannot help but contextualise its tale of isolation and severed connections with what we have lived through this past year, and in Aja’s capable hands, we’ve been given something from another time that somehow speaks profoundly to our present moment, something that promises to find ways of speaking to those who find it for years to come.

Thoroughly recommend checking this out on Netflix now!

Oxygen is available on Netflix now!

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