Using the simplest of means, director Alexandre Aja stages an oppressive chamber play in which the only actress, Mélanie Laurent, slowly runs out of oxygen. For what reason OXYGEN However, it is not nearly as effective as it could be, as we reveal in our review.
OT: Oxygène (FR/USA 2021)
An initially nameless woman (Mélanie Laurent) wakes up in a cold capsule without any memories. She is tied to her cot and there are lots of computer screens, medical equipment and tubes around her. Her only contact with the outside world is an artificial intelligence named MILO (Mathieu Almaric), who cannot tell her how she got there, but who informs her that the oxygen in her capsule is running out. In order to put an end to this nightmare, the young woman must somehow remember how she ended up in this predicament. And so she asks the computer to call various phone numbers for her, hoping to reach someone outside of her pod…
French filmmaker Alexandre Aja began his directing career as a co-founder of the so-called “new French hardness”; a horror film trend from the early noughties. In addition to Aja, various compatriots suddenly proved themselves capable of staging almost unimaginable violence – even the trend towards torture porn that emerged around the same time, fueled primarily by US filmmakers, sometimes seemed almost harmless. Alongside Pascal Laugier (“Martyrs”), Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (“Inside”) as well as Xavier Gens (“Frontier(s)”), Aja’s “High Tension” caused such a stir that it received a US remake three years later of the 1970s terror classic “Hill of the Bloody Eyes”. From then on, the Parisian-born man’s path seemed set; With “Mirrors” and “Piranha 3D” as director, “P2 – Screams in the Parking Garage” as screenwriter and “Alexandre Ajas Maniac” as advertising producer, he then dutifully fulfilled expectations, only to switch back three gears since 2013. He remained true to the genre, but with the underrated Daniel Radcliffe vehicle “Horns” as well as the genre mix “The 9th Life of Louis Drax”, which was only released on DVD and Blu-ray in this country, as well as the creature feature “ Crawl,” Aja seemed to have put his bloody years behind him. An impression that his first Netflix project “Oxygen” confirms, in which Aja, for the first time since his debut in French, appears more reduced than ever. And unfortunately also weaker than ever.
Elizabeth Hansen (Mélanie Laurent) wakes up lonely in a cold chamber.
The starting point of “Oxygen” is inevitably reminiscent of Paul Conroy’s “Buried”. In the 2010 chamber drama thriller starring Ryan Reynolds, a man awakens in a coffin underground. All he has with him is a lighter (certainly as a cinematic concession to the audience – after all, you have to be able to see something down there) and a telephone for communication outside. In “Oxygen”, medical spotlights provide the necessary lighting and contact with the outside is achieved via an artificial intelligence, which initially denies the initially nameless protagonist any information or help – after all, a large part of the atmosphere in “Oxygen” develops from ignorance whether the situation. It would be extremely counterproductive if the operating system, which calls itself MILO (“Medical Interface for Life Support”), immediately filled all the gaps in the main character’s (and therefore the audience’s) knowledge. But screenwriter Christie LeBlanc, making her feature film debut, actually succeeds (“How to Make a Reality Star”) In the first half it’s surprisingly good at explaining MILO’s refusal to provide information in a credible way. Since the young woman, who is later identified as Elizabeth Hansen, has no knowledge whatsoever, her requests to the operating system are initially simply too vague for MILO to be able to give her any helpful answers – after all, he is an AI and not a human. And the more you learn about the situation as a whole, the more you realize that MILO is simply not carrying out certain of Elizabeth’s instructions canbecause his skills are not sufficient or the setting does not allow him to do it.
“Since the young woman, later identified as Elizabeth Hansen, has no knowledge whatsoever, her requests to the operating system are initially simply too vague for MILO to be able to give her any helpful answers – after all, he is an AI and not a human. “
But it’s not just the question of how the hell Elizabeth got into this predicament (and the associated question: whether and how she’ll get out of it) that forms the atmospheric framework of “Oxygen”, but also that of the film in the first place The title-giving oxygen shortage that the protagonist is confronted with. She only has 35 percent H2O and therefore only a few hours left to free herself from the cold chamber or organize help from outside. This literal counting down of a countdown gives Elizabeth’s plight a tremendous urgency from the start, as the symbolic noose around her neck continually tightens – and it sets the narrative rhythm: “Oxygen” plays almost in real time. Thanks to these simple but effective ingredients, the film is incredibly intense in the early stages; And although Alexandre Aja or his regular cameraman Maxime Alexandre (“Shazam!”) Only having this single, a few square meter large setting of the cold capsule to use is possible thanks to different visual focuses in the perspectives and sharpness, the incredible variety of details in the set equipment and of course the facial expressions of the main actress Mélanie Laurent, which are particularly effective in the close-up (“6 Underground”) never a feeling of redundancy. One scene in particular, in which the camera, for once, moves out of the cold capsule and shows what is around it, proves to be downright intoxicating. And so with every passing minute you suffer more with your Elizabeth; But just when there are first answers to outstanding questions, “Oxygen” collapses in terms of atmosphere.
How did she get there? And most importantly: Will she get out of here in time?
“Oxygen” is not one of those films that only becomes apparent in the final resolution and boasts either a twist that turns everything on its head or a surprise pulled out of a hat. Instead, Christie LeBlanc gradually peels back the big picture and presents Elizabeth with bits and pieces of information. These either turn out to be actually true or are turned inside out just a few minutes later because any outside voices that communicate with Elizabeth over the telephone only prove to be credible informants to a limited extent. The absolute decoding of their situation with all the big and small details is actually only revealed in the last minutes of the film, but at the latest after the exact genre positioning that takes place about halfway through the running time (which we don’t want to anticipate at this point for spoiler reasons – who If you want to know more, check the tags below this review), “Oxygen” is suddenly all too transparent. What’s more: the script, which previously raises many exciting, moral questions, chooses the easiest answers to answer them through the final set piece alone. Where previously the pros and cons had to be weighed up intensively, the further course of the story suddenly allows for very clear answers. Any moral dilemmas become invalid and instead give way to topics that have long been discussed in the genre. Only when, towards the end, the drop in oxygen, which at times has been pushed completely into the background, causes the intensity of the story to increase again, can “Oxygen” rear its head again briefly before the all-too-forgiving ending disappoints again.
“The script, which previously raised many exciting, moral questions, chose the easiest answers to answer them through the final set piece alone. Where previously the pros and cons had to be intensively weighed up, the further course of the story suddenly allows very clear answers.
Mélanie Laurent, who carries all the acting burdens on her shoulders, is allowed to endure an hour and a half of intense agony in “Oxygen”. In the best moments she manages to cross the feeling of absolute helplessness with phases of sudden euphoria. Whenever her Elizabeth seems to be a little closer to the goal – escaping the chamber – (even if only because she finally hears a voice on the other end of the telephone line), these few seconds of joy are truly thrilling. It’s a shame that Laurent’s acting can’t compensate for the drop in quality in the second half of “Oxygen”.
Conclusion: With his chamber play thriller “Oxygen”, Alexandre Aja skilfully follows in the footsteps of Paul Conroy’s “Buried”. But despite a strong Mélanie Laurent in the lead role, the story and with it the tension collapse at the moment when the many open questions that were responsible for the atmosphere at the beginning are gradually answered.
“Oxygen” will be available to stream on Netflix from May 12, 2021.