Directed by Alexandre Aja, Oxygen is a very clever thriller and intriguing survival story about a woman who has lost herself and her memories in a claustrophobic place. It is perfectly tailored with an exceptional sense of style, it is a flawless sci-fi experience with an unforgettable performance by Mélanie Laurent. Take a deep breath and dive into this unique cinematic experience!
After it has been written in 2016 and first Anna Hathaway, then Noomi Rapace attached to star, Oxygen has finally come alive under the capable hands of Alexandre Aja, the director of Crawl and Haute tension and Inglorious Basterds’ Shosanna, Mélanie Laurent.
Being the product of the first global closure of the pandemic and the creative energies that have accumulated at that time, its confined and suffocating environment rhymes with our recently opening confined world. As the director stated himself: „…the pandemic came, and everything took on another light. The movie became a way [deeper] and more intense introspection into exploring that existential quest of who we are and if there’s way out of the situation we are in today.”
The protagonist’s struggle to escape from the confinement of his health cryo-capsule and the labyrinth of his amnesiac mind is like an individual trapped within the four walls of his home because of the pandemic, forced to discover his constant companion, himself. As if the existential crisis were not enough, Liz has barely an hour of oxygen left in the capsule to find out where she is, who she is, and how to escape from her coffin, the very thing that is meant to keep her alive.
Movies crammed into a single location can only work well if their relatively shorter running time is urged on by a constant source of tension. The clicking of a timed bomb, the visible rise of the water level in a flooded cabin, or, in our case, the beeping of an instrument indicating the decreasing level of oxygen, each indicates you either work out something or you are going to die. Lovely! The thriller genre also seems to be an obvious choice, because it is difficult to make an interesting and engaging film with a limited cast and a limited location without any emotion to be stirred up. Especially not to keep the attention and the suspense up all the time while the same thing is happening on the screen practically all the time. Of course, external pressure is not enough to make the perfect mix, you need a cleverly conducted dramatic setting and last but not least, fantastic actors, who can carry the whole film on their backs. Oxygen pulls these off very well and, with Mélanie Laurent at the helm, deftly rises to the challenge of its sci-fi-infused genre. What a nice job!
The science-fiction genre does very good to the narrative as being pushed from reality into fantasy, which can add many layers to the dramatic situation and practically frees it from the chains of predictability. Damn, it’d better be, because if it were not for the surprises, tricks, and secrets, the suspense itself and the acting, however perfect, would not be enough to create a real catharsis. But, Alexandre Aja’s direction is very clever at keeping the viewer in the dark, not guessing but punching the viewer in the face with revelations that come as a shock to the audience and Liz. As she learns more and more about herself, as her memories emerge in flashbacks, more and more emotions begin to mingle within her.
Even within a short scene or sentence, emotional shifts seem easy in the interpretation of an excellent actress, but to authentically execute those transitions, which require great a variety of energy, is a terribly difficult and demanding task. But Mélanie Laurent does it! Acting is perfect when the thoughts become visible and the French actress is able to draw out incredible human depths from her character in a limited space so that we can feel and see that she is carrying memories, feelings, desires, and fears with her in those moments when she decides to give up for good or when she realizes who she really is. She spins and mixes them beautifully, which is why her play becomes cathartic and what draws the viewer in and makes them care about Liz’s fate. A masterpiece!
Although dubbing is available, I recommend watching it in the original French with subtitles, because on the one hand, hearing Mélanie Laurent in the original is really impressive, and on the other hand, the French actor Mathieu Amalric, who was chosen as the voice of MILO, the controlling AI, has a brilliant voice. Those who have watched the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey will discover a similarity in the tone of the artificial intelligence, HAL, which controls the spaceship, and the system that controls Liz’s cryo-box. Its calm, emotionless, and always even tone in this claustrophobic setting is a powerful tension booster, and its inhuman character, although it speaks to Liz in a very human-like voice, tends to make her aware of the soullessness of her prison and thus becomes a perfect counterpoint.
Alexandre Aja’s direction, which this time leans towards suspense rather than horror, with his intelligent editing, does quite an excellent job of filling the cramped capsule, using plenty of close-ups and a variety of camera angles to immerse the viewer in Liz’s sufferings. It is indeed a bit like Ryan Reynolds’ Buried, but its sci-fi nature allows it to work with even more unexpected twists and turns and to take on even more ‘gigantic’ proportions, even if it is set in a small, congested space. But these gigantic dimensions are different from what you might first think, yet how obvious they seem in hindsight.
In a squeezed place, the world itself expands, as other opportunities like getting to know ourselves better and listening deeply to the world that has opened up for us happened with us in the quarantine times, Liz’s perspective expands as she begins to remember more and more about her life. Family? Love? Desires? Fears? The world as a whole? What do we take with us and what do we surround ourselves with within our solitude? Who are we in dialogue with deep down, buried in ourselves, and will we ever break free from our solitude? The moment Liz realizes her answers is elemental, so does her fate eventually. The film’s style, colors, and music all serve the dramatic events brilliantly and keep the suspense building. The flashing display of the dwindling oxygen level, the flashbacks set outside and in the forest environment, are all perfectly embedded. Their absence is suffocating not only for Liz but for the viewer too.
What is the value of 5 liters of oxygen? If I would ask you, my dear reader, to read my article with one deep breath we could easily find it out. Because sometimes we only realize the true value of things, when we are about to lose them forever. Science-fiction movies are good for reminding people that, although it is still relatively possible to live well in the world we live in now, there may come a time when survival, rather than success, will be our primary driving force. People need to wake up and realize who they are, as individuals as well as in societies. Who are you? Who you really are? I believe that this is something that everyone has to answer to themselves. Humans are, above all, beings with whom nature exists in close cooperation and not for. Although this often seems to be forgotten nowadays. As the director said himself: “I think this is what I would love people to take from the movie, that maybe we have to be ready for some kind of apocalypse, but maybe there is some other option that we can try to make happen before it’s too late.” I think ultimately it’s hard not to agree.