From the New French Extremity and splatter flicks to ‘nature strikes back’ horror, Alexandre Aja has amassed an impressive filmography. To date, Aja’s highs – High Tension, Crawl, Piranha 3D, The Hills Have Eyes – outnumber his career lows – Mirrors. But Aja’s latest release, Oxygen, marks a significant departure from past work. What looks like a sci-fi update of Ryan Reynold’s single-setting thriller, Buried, Oxygen recently premiered on Netflix. At first glance, it’s premise seems far removed from Aja’s ‘bread and butter’ of flashy, gut-wrenching gore. Nonetheless, critics seem overwhelmingly impressed with Aja’s approach to the material.
Without warning, a woman wakes up trapped inside a cryogenic unit. She has no memory of who she is or how she got there. Her only contact with the outside world is an AI program named MILO that will not permit the cryo unit to be opened. And the woman quickly discovers that her oxygen levels are quickly running out. As time works against her, the woman realizes there’s only one way to escape. Before she runs out of oxygen she must somehow unravel her own lost memories.
Oxygen Boasts Clever Storytelling and a Patient Approach to Filmmaking
Like Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried, Aja faces the same challenge of sustaining not only tension but a moving story with a single character and a single setting. While there’s an obvious overlap between the movies, it’s more a function of their shared premise. In spite of its limited setting, Oxygen succeeds in maintaining persistent tension. In part, Aja accomplishes this feat by staggering what information he offers and introducing successive hurdles for his protagonist. Though Aja uses an automated syringe to create real physical action, it’s more benign things – cryo unit serial numbers, whispers in the background of phone conversations – that translate into an emotional rollercoaster. Given Aja’s past reliance on slickly orchestrated violence, Oxygen’s patient, subtle approach to its suspense is impressive.
And LeBlanc delivers a mystery that twists and turns in just the way the movie needs.
A lion’s share of the credit, however, goes to Christie LeBlanc’s screenplay. In order to maintain our interest for over 90 minutes, Oxygen requires a puzzle for audiences to solve. And LeBlanc delivers a mystery that twists and turns in just the way the movie needs. Much of the movie’s suspense comes from the various breadcrumbs LeBlanc drops over the course of the story. In terms of structure, Oxygen’s story pieces out each mystery in such a way to keep you working on where the movie’s next direction may turn. And Oxygen feels like its run out of mileage at its three-quarter mark, LeBlanc introduces a big twist that propels things to their conclusion.
Oxygen Leans Heavily On Its Lead Actress to Carry Its Quieter Moments
At just over 100 minutes, Oxygen flirts with over-staying its welcome. Though LeBlanc’s screenplay goes a long way toward filling gaps between crises, Melanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds) deserves much credit for keeping audiences hooked. Aside from Malik Zidi’s ‘Leo Ferguson’, Laurent is the only actor who physically appears on screen. And Zidi’s role amounts to brief flashbacks. From start to finish, Oxygen leans on Laurent to make its sci-fi setting and claustrophobic premise work.
…Laurent’s performance roller-coasters from confused and panicked to steely determination.
Laurent overcomes the physical limitations of her setting to deliver a layered performance. Similar to the movie’s storytelling, Laurent roller-coasters from confused and panicked to steely determination. That is, she balances desperation fitting the situation. Yet at the same time Laurent assures audiences that she’s more than capable. With literally no space to movie, Laurent relies on non-verbal cues and an ability to channel emotions to craft an empathetic performance. It’s a riveting performance that rises to the occasion of the premise’s constraints.
Oxygen Breathes Life Into Its Recycled Concept
Once you accept that Oxygen is a sci-fi update on Buried it’s much easier to move past the similarities. That Aja can build such engagement and tension from its confined setting is a testament to all aspects on movie-making on display. Aja maintains a firm grasp on the movie’s nearly persistent white-knuckle tension. And when Oxygen slows down, LeBlanc’s screenplay and Laurent’s performance invest this thriller with enough mystery and emotion to keep you watching. Most importantly, Oxygen’s ending feels more satisfying – and earned – than how Buried concluded. Ultimately, Aja proves he doesn’t need extreme gore to deliver a first-rate thriller.