Alexandre Aja's latest doesn't quite sustain the breathless tension for its entire runtime but is elevated by a great lead performance
Alexandre Aja is the horror director who knows a thing or two about how to make first-class trash: graphic violence and a good amount of self-awareness, yes, but also brisk pacing, characters who feel human, and unexpected narrative shifts. To my mind, he’s responsible for some of the most purely entertaining pulp gems of the last twenty years, including his vastly underrated Hills Have Eyes remake, Piranha 3D, and Crawl, which pitted Kaya Scodelario against an army of hungry alligators during a hurricane.
Like Crawl, Aja’s latest, Oxygen, is another film about a plucky heroine battling overwhelming odds in a very small space, though it’s somewhat less trashy by design, and building to a far more ambitious climax than the one we're originally led to expect. The slightly more serious tone makes it a little less fun than the usual Aja fare, though Oxygen certainly counts as a win for movies in the “one room” sub-genre.
This is Buried in the future, basically, with Ryan Reynolds swapped out for Mélanie Laurent, who gives a dazzling, near solo performance while confined to a tiny space, and the coffin swapped out for a futuristic, cryogenic chamber. Anne Hathaway was originally meant for the role, as was Noomi Rapace, but it’s hard to imagine this film being anywhere near as compelling without Laurent at its centre, who's by turns frantic, resourceful, cynical, and funny, but always relatable, and always human.
She plays Liz Hansen, a woman who wakes up in a cryogenic chamber and can't remember who she is or how she got there. The claustrophobic pod doubles as a supercomputer that can be operated through conversations with MILO, voiced here by the great French actor Mathieu Amalric. With her oxygen supply depleting fast, Liz has very little time to work out who she is and must use MILO's God-like search function to try and solve the puzzle of her past.
Movies like this one often play games as to whether the AI in question has ulterior motives, and part of the fun here is trying to work out whether MILO is more pal than HAL. Interestingly, this AI isn't positioned as a problem solver, though. It can help you to survive – but you need to ask the right questions. To say any more would spoil the many interesting – though perhaps increasingly illogical – plot diversions that Oxygen piles on, as Aja consults the genre textbook to exploit a number of unexpected avenues.
It's at its most gripping during the first hour, as Liz puts the initial pieces together, though struggles somewhat to keep the breathless momentum all the way to end. That said, Aja does a dynamic and efficient job of keeping the action lively and pacing up in such a confined space, only cutting away to the occasional flashback to allow for some breathing room, though never at any cost to the tension. It's a showcase for a different type of Aja movie, revealing a new set of skills.
This is absolutely Laurent's movie, though. Essentially the only person in the film (only three actors are billed in total), she's the key element that allows this high-concept piece to feel distinctly human and character-driven. As the script touches on notions of isolation and grief, it's Laurent who sells them to us with her facial acting alone, a perfectly judged performance in the smallest of spaces.
Oxygen is now streaming on Netflix.Where to watch