There’s nothing quite as terrifying as facing your own mortality…
While Oxygen plays on some genre tropes that have some well worn grooves in them, they work thanks to execution and a hell of a leading performance.
This is the story of a young woman (Mélanie Laurent), who wakes up in a cryogenic pod. She doesn’t remember who she is or how she ended up there. As she’s running out of oxygen, she must rebuild her memory to find a way out of her nightmare.
Yeah, the lone person stuck somewhere trope has been done before, but in Oxygen director Alexandre Aja and star Melanie Laurent are in perfect lockstep to keep us engaged in a story that for all intents and purposes has one person in it.
As a storyteller, Alexandre Aja obviously has a strong history and background in genre filmmaking but the real marvel is that he’s able to take story and create legitimate tension throughout a narrative without leaning on a murderer or mysterious creature to generate the confusion and terror along the way. In many ways this might be the most humanistic film that he’s ever released because this is about an internalize terror that we can all relate to as he makes confusion that lynchpin that we lean on throughout.
He allows the visual style of it all to keep us engaged, allowing for many more elements then the confines of the pod to come into play. Aja really crafts a state of being that feels borderline ethereal that keeps us guessing as our heroine has to determine what the hell is actually going on.
While this is “basically” a one woman show from beginning to end, he deftly allows us to run through a wide spectrum of emotions with our heroine via flashbacks and other devices. In combination with using multiple angles inside the cryogenic pod, what could have gotten visually boring, VERY fast, never does as he engages us with some slick special effects and an emotional resonance through the fantastic performance we get from the consistently underrated Melanie Laurent.
It’s one thing to say that you can carry a film but it’s an entirely other thing to actually do it and after watching this film there is no doubt Laurent is an actor that is more then up to the task. Rather than play the locked in character at top volume, she allows the emotional arc of her character to have some legitimate ebb and flow to it all which makes us as the viewer much more open to the entire experience.
Sure the script from writer Christie LeBlanc as some muddy moments as it occasionally veers into some science fiction obtuseness but Laurent keeps it all incredibly ground and both her and Aja make sure that we care about her character. I know it’s simple but it’s not always easy and with Aja and Laurent playing in this very limited space we really get a performance that is not only well rounded but incredibly emotionally dynamic as well, which is saying something when the lead actor basically isn’t going anywhere. And while you might recognize the voice of Mathieu Almaric as her computer companion M.I.L.O, make no mistake that it’s Laurent who is doing all the heavy lifting here.
Ultimately, while Oxygen has some psychologically scary moments to it, it’s more of a thinking Science-Fiction piece that brings up some real complex questions when the will to survive is confronted with the greater good of the science that is presented before us. In this film, while emotion has its place, logic reigned and that’s what makes it fit in the science fiction genre as it straddles a line of genuine entertainment while presenting some legitimately philosophical moments along the way.