Waking up in a medical cryo unit with no memory of who she is or how she got here, Elizabeth Hansen (Mélanie Laurent) discovers that her oxygen is running low, and the medical AI in charge of the pod (voiced by Mathieu Amalric) won’t let her out. This is the simple premise of the new suspense thriller from director Alexandre Aja, and it’s all that’s necessary to get your blood pumping. Working from a script by Christie LeBlanc that had been circulating around the industry for many years (Anne Hathaway was attached to produce and star in the film back in 2017), Oxygen keeps you guessing as Elizabeth tries to put together the pieces of her past in order to fight for a possible future.
Drawing from influences such as Rodrigo Cortés’ 2010 film Buried, Aja immediately pushes us onto the edge of our seats in the film’s opening moments. A veteran of thrillers as varied as High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha, and most recently Crawl, the director has long had an affinity for films that take a minimalist premise and use that to generate maximum tension. His latest takes that idea to its most bare, having us spend a wrenching 100 minutes confined to a single location, inside this small box where Elizabeth struggles more and more as time goes on to figure out how to unlock the keys that she needs to potentially escape what might just be her coffin.
Aja has many tools at his disposal to keep the audience engagement to a maximum despite having the bare essentials in terms of cast and plot here. For starters, Laurent is an actor more than capable of holding a screen for 100 minutes entirely on her own. The captivating star of Beginners and Inglourious Basterds has been much less frequent in front of the screen since she began her own feature directing career in 2011 with her film The Adopted (she has since directed titles such as 2014’s acclaimed Breathe and the upcoming The Nightingale, starring Elle and Dakota Fanning). Here she reminds us what a force to be reckoned with she truly is, not only holding this space physically but also drawing us into her emotional arc as we become invested in someone who not only do we not know, but she doesn’t even know who she is.
The other crucial element of the cast is Amalric, a pitch perfect casting choice for the voice of Milo, the AI operator of the pod Hansen is contained within. That soothing, gentle voice of his that we heard delivering narration throughout 2007’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is just as gentle here, yet he also manages to give Milo a sinister HAL 9000 energy. Do we trust this intelligence? Are we as an audience projecting uncertainty and distrust onto an AI which has no discernible thoughts of its own, or is there truly something sinister at play with Milo? Amalric masters this vocal performance to where the ambiguity of the character remains frustratingly impenetrable for its entire runtime.
When you have the audience set strictly in one location, with one character on screen for the whole film, having a great actor in that part is vital, but Aja has plenty more tricks up his sleeve. With over a decade of experience now in bringing these minimalist ideas to life on screen, he knows how to use the environment to his advantage – even if that setting is one tiny box of a location. Through lighting shifts, unique camera movements, and even alternating camera lenses, the director uses an array of filmmaking techniques to constantly distort the perspective of the film in order to calibrate our emotional response to the situation that Hansen is in.
Be wary of spoilers when reading about Oxygen if you are yet to see it, as LeBlanc’s many twists and turns do keep you on your toes. This is a film where you should want to know as little as possible going into it, and that’s because it’s such a gripping roller coaster of an adventure that only benefits from you having no idea what’s coming around each and every narrative corner. In a cinematic landscape where so many films feel the same, Oxygen is the rare suspense thriller of late that genuinely gets your adrenaline pumping, putting you right in the character’s headspace as she is desperately trying to unscramble this mystery in order to fight for her own survival. It’s a breathless thriller that doesn’t let up from minute one until the very end.
Oxygen is streaming on Netflix now