Directed by Alexandre Aja
Written by Christie LeBlanc
I am confident—less confident than I was—that at some point, there once again will be great, or at least genuinely satisfying, new movies. And when that happens, I suppose I'll see fit to reverse this dumb blog's long slide into an even-less-read-than-it-was Old Hollywood wankfest. But while we wait, there's Alexandre Aja's new film to help us waste our remaining days. This is Oxygen, which is not "genuinely satisfying," not even really that close, yet still frighteningly easy to name as my favorite movie of 2021 so far. Plus, for a Netflix release, it's legitimately impressive, though the Netflix brand on foreign films produced outside the streaming giant—Oxygen is French—has generally been less of a cause for sitting on your couch with crossed arms and a scowl than it is when they've produced or distributed American movies.
The "Alexandre Aja film" part of that helps, undoubtedly, as Aja's name has become something of a seal of warm porridge quality in a movie, in that whatever it is he's up to, it probably isn't boring. It will probably be a genre picture (and, with very few exceptions, something that could be categorized, at least tenuously, as "a thriller"), with a strong hook and strong execution. Oxygen is no exception—it is maybe the most "check out my hooook" movie Aja's done since writing and producing Maniac—though it comes in tandem with Aja's weaknesses, given that Aja is at his best when the ideas he's working with are at their most straightforward. The gold standard here is perhaps Aja's last film, Crawl, where "the hook" was "one or more alligators would like to eat people during a hurricane, and the people disagree," and the themes revolved entirely around elemental issues of strength and survival. Historically, Aja's tended to trip up whenever he does anything more emotionally or narratively complicated than that. Take, for example, Horns—that's the one where he tried to make an art film, oh brother—though you could just as easily point to High Tension, which is a perfectly fine gonzo French Extremity horror thriller right up until the point it decides to be astoundingly dumb instead. (Frankly, I suspect Maniac isn't as good as I thought it was at the time, too.) Happily, Oxygen isn't that dumb.
It is not, however, not dumb, starting with that hooky premise, which finds a woman, who'll eventually discover enough information to identify herself as "Elizabeth Hansen" (Mélanie Laurent), trapped inside the coffin-like box of a cryonics unit with no memory of who she is or how she got there, waking up some significant time ahead of schedule despite the fact she was supposed to be in stasis. It invites unavoidable comparisons to Buried, and since I've never seen Buried, I'll limit myself to the observation that the role of the cellphone there is filled and augmented by the box itself here, which is outfitted with a comms system, Internet access, and a touchscreen interface on the interior hatch, as well as a voice assistant that identifies itself by the acronym MILO (Mathieu Amalric). So maybe the biggest hurdle the screenplay presents is why a stasis tube built to preserve dying people in hospitals has all this stuff in it (besides, of course, a digital grave bell on the off chance something goes wrong), insofar as they're not going to be conscious enough to use any of it. But it is best to be generous and allow a movie the contrivances it needs to exist.
It turns out something has gone wrong, quite badly, as evidenced by the fact that Elizabeth is awake. Frightened and confused, she attempts to escape her confinement, rapidly discovers she can't actually get out on her own, and therefore uses MILO—at turns helpful and at turns very much the opposite—to retrieve help from the outside, a process that becomes complicated when she finds out that she's not in a hospital and that, wherever it is she actually is, the particular cryonics tube she's been put in has been taken off the books, registered as destroyed three years earlier. That means that somebody put her here—and, presumably, that that somebody doesn't want her to be found. The other thing is that Elizabeth doesn't really have time to solve a mystery from inside her tomb; perhaps I should have mentioned that upon waking up, the first thing Elizabeth learns is that she was between 43 and 72 minutes of air left—oxygen, one might clarify—depending on precisely how panicked Elizabeth decides to be during her remaining time alive.
Which us brings to the first of Oxygen's pair of modest triumphs, which is that Laurent is exceptionally committed to the acting exercise the story presents her, finding a smart and rewarding balance between freaking out hardcore and diligently working the problem—Elizabeth is, it turns out, a scientist—shifting organically between a tremendous slate of emotions over the course of a 101 minute film that (cannily enough, though it is arguably slightly too long) isn't strictly chained down to the real-time nature of its conceit. There's the big hyperventilating fits, but these are mostly used as punctuation for a conscious determination of how scared, how angry, how sad, and even how just plain annoyed Elizabeth is going to be about any given setback or impending doom, and for a character with basically no being outside her circumstances, and thrust into an extreme situation with almost no tether to actual human experience, Laurent manages to impose a surprisingly well-drawn personality upon her. It's the performance the film absolutely demands of its star, since, by definition, it's a film that will be almost exclusively a camera crammed into a box with her, usually right in front of her face, and that performance succeeds completely (at least up until the point that film asks her to do things on behalf of the screenplay that neither Laurent, or anybody, could provide). In fact, Oxygen arguably manages three modest triumphs—the last one being the most modest, but not therefore unimportant—in that Amalric's voice offers Laurent a strong scene partner in the form of a plausible future of medicine, a disembodied idiot whose only register is soothing smugness.
Oxygen, then, albeit by total accident (its development began all the way back in 2017), comes awfully close to stumbling ass-backwards into being the great pandemic sci-fi allegory, a movie that, in form and function, is pretty much entirely about profound medical isolation and which, almost literally, buries its heroine alive inside a smartphone while it waits for her to give up and die. (Doubtless it's an allegory more resonant for those less intellectually and psychologically suited to the "isolation" the pandemic has occasioned, and who might find a more substantial symbolic connection between "working from home and waiting to get vaccinated" and "getting locked inside a two-cubic-meter casket until you forget what your name is, while an emotionless robot capable of, at best, poorly-feigned concern keeps trying to poke you with sharp objects.")
But that's the second triumph anyway, and whatever else Oxygen is or isn't, it's a strong showcase for Aja's credentials as a stylist and a craftsman, in that he and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (no relation) never quite run out of ways to provide new and distressing images of Laurent being trapped inside a box—whether that means simply shifting the lighting scheme away from inhumane, antiseptic blue-white for emphasis or, in a bravura move, spinning the camera around inside the box for a dizzying long take as the facts of Elizabeth's situation begin to horrifyingly resolve. Likewise, although it's a locked-down movie by default, it's never entirely beholden to the same physical constraints that bind Elizabeth: some of the film's strongest visuals tilt toward abstraction and subjectivity, like a terrific opening montage of a white rat pursuing escape inside a maze that is slowly revealed to be virtually infinite, though my favorite is this montage's converse image—a dolly-out from the box that turns Elizabeth's universe into a slice of lonely existence in an expanding field of depthless black. And all along, even into the parts that don't work as well, Alexandre has a fine ally in an unnerving electronic score from frequent collaborator Robin Coubert. (All that said, though, and as nice as most of the movie looks, the fragmentary flashbacks to Elizabeth's pre-cryonic life are rather less creditable work: there's a distinct "life insurance commercial" vibe to these flashbacks, and they're often shot with demonically ugly shallow focus, the worst new trend in cinema.)
Eventually, our thriller runs into a wall. Part of that is that aforementioned abiding dumbness (there is more than one little setpiece revolving around MILO's enthusiasm for bringing out its robot arm and sticking Elizabeth with needles, and this is distracting because she's already been turned into Swiss cheese thanks to the network of holes and tubes stuck in her that MILO has access to, and the climax, or one of the climaxes, does indeed revolve around the necessity of finding where one of those tubes is inserted before MILO can pump her full of off-switch juice). But that's in service of the thriller's thrills, and thus largely forgivable, even if it's not exactly praiseworthy. The bigger part is that Oxygen has a twist, which any viewer with any experience with science fiction will almost inevitably get well ahead of—cryonics, what could that be useful for? I mean, it's basically one of exactly two things, right?—and it's so readily figured out that when it comes, it's surprising anyway, because you've assumed the obvious answer had to be a misdirection.
Nevertheless, in the moment of its reveal, it's a wonderful twist—really hammering home that unintended connection to the pandemic, and also gracing Oxygen with its very strongest visual, a seemingly never-ending spiral like the eye of God. It's good enough that one wishes the movie stopped there, or, more aptly, had more intelligent and interesting places left to go. But it's where Oxygen gets too big for its britches, and Oxygen (you know, I keep saying "Aja," but the screenplay was written by Christie LeBlanc, and in truth this is entirely a screenplay problem) is obliged to pursue themes that it has, this past hour, not even been glancingly about, and which don't make sense given the revelations it's made, with Laurent pushed to reboot her character in ways that don't accord with where she came from. It becomes, effectively, the exceedingly stupid version of (spoiler!) a little movie called Moon. (To be more descriptive, then: Oxygen lacks the imagination to suspect that a character cloned from the transhumanist who invented cloning and memory implant technology would probably not have the temperament to get existentially outraged over being cloned and having memories implanted, particularly given that her situation is distinctly privileged in comparison to her predecessor's.) It's destabilizing, and far afield from the film's actual strengths, and it's always a terrible pity when a movie wrecks itself in the end. But a bad (even then, more like "emotionally and intellectually lazy") ending doesn't entirely sink Oxygen, and even modest triumphs are, after all, still triumphs to be celebrated. Especially in 2021, which is shaping up to somehow be an even worse film year than 2020, if you can possibly believe it.