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Film Review: “Oxygen” May Be Limited, but Still Sustains Dramatic Life

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 11th, 2021

Film poster: “Oxygen”

Oxygen (Alexandre Aja, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.

The new French sci-fi thriller Oxygen, from director Alexandre Aja (Crawl), has much to recommend it, particularly if you are a fan of smart single-location filmmaking. For most of its 100 minutes, actress Mélanie Laurent (Mia and the White Lion) lies enclosed in a high-tech sarcophagus, a prisoner of some nefarious scheme, the secret of which we only discover towards the end. And so we watch as she struggles to break free, her oxygen levels dropping, amazed that such a claustrophobic tale can hold such interest. That interest only goes so far, however, before its limitations play out. Nevertheless, Oxygen remains an often inventive story from start to finish.

Laurent plays an unnamed woman who wakes up, after a clue-laden opening image of a rat in a maze (more rats will follow in various forms), enveloped in a shroud of sorts, her mouth and then face bursting through the thin material, gasping for breath as an alarm blares. Twisting and turning, she manages to free her hands and disengage the tubes plugged into her wrists. Once the red light that initially illuminates the scene switches to red (the alarm going off as it does), she – and we – can better see the surroundings. It’s a tight fit, a little like an older MRI machine, only wider. So far, so confusing.

Mélanie Laurent in the opening of OXYGEN ©Netflix

And far from good, especially once an embedded AI (artificial intelligence) speaks up and informs the woman that there is a system malfunction and the oxygen levels are dropping. So what does she do? Start screaming and crying. Yes, this is one of those movies where the protagonist does exactly the worst thing possible in the given situation. Personally, I always find those kinds of responses so frustrating that they momentarily kick me out of the story. If you are told you have limited supplies of air, why would you then behave in a way to accelerate the loss of your supply? Because that raises the dramatic stakes …

Leaving this cheap script device aside, there is cinematic cleverness still afoot. With flashes to her former life, we start to gain a sense of what might be going on. Or not, as there appears to be conflicting information. The AI, named MILO, is able to place calls to emergency services, allowing our lead (virtually only) character to talk to police and others. What complicates matters is that she has no memory of who she is, and MILO only refers to her by a code name, “Omicron 267.” Not helpful. Still, slowly, she is able to figure a few details out.

Mélanie Laurent in OXYGEN ©Netflix

And then, in the final act, everything we thought we knew gets tossed, revealing a brand-new reality. It’s a solid payoff. Unfortunately, long before we get there, we’ve had to endure as many moments of annoyance as of delight. Throughout, Laurent, when not screaming out her own frustration, holds our attention, which is saying a lot given that she lies prone for much of the movie. Thanks to her and the unexpected twist, Oxygen proves worthwhile, if far from perfect.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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