Released: 12th May
Seen: 15th June
Alexandre Aja is a fascinating director. He first really came to prominence with his film Haute Tension, part of an era of horror cinema known as “New French Extremity” which, very basically, means French films that really messed with people in the early 2000’s. He would go on to make the Hills Have Eyes remake (one of the few good 2000’s horror remakes), Piranha 3D (another one of the few good 2010’s horror remakes) and Crawl (2019 Best Film honorable mention). His films have this weird pattern of somehow getting less extreme the longer he works, which is a fascinating projection for one of the founding members of the New French Extremity movement. It fits that pattern then that Oxygen might be his most subdued film yet, but it’s still really damn good.
Oxygen’s premise is absurdly simple. It starts with a woman, whose name we later learn is Elizabeth Hansen (Mélanie Laurent), who wakes up in what appears to be a cryogenic chamber that she can’t open up. She quickly realises several things are going on and the most important thing is that her oxygen supply is at 35% which means that she’s got about 90 minutes to survive. She also has no idea how she got into this situation or, indeed, anything about herself as she has total memory loss (hence why she has to learn her name late in the proceedings). Elizabeth has to not only try and figure out how she got into this chamber, but who she is and how she can get out before she runs out of oxygen.
In terms of claustrophobic premises to work with, Oxygen’s setup is sublime. It’s intensity and simple setting creates a tension filled experience that only grows more and more nerve shredding the longer it goes on. The simple act of counting down how much oxygen is left in the pod makes for a terrifying experience, one that only grows worse around the halfway point when a sudden reveal (and the best jumpscare in the film) really lets it sink in how screwed Elizabeth actually is. Watching someone try their best to fight an impossible battle makes for a compelling movie.
The entire film lives and dies based purely on the acting of Mélanie Laurent who, it must be said, delivers an incredibly compelling performance. Alternating from confused to determined to terrified in a matter of seconds, you understand her pure frustration when she hangs up on the very people who might be able to help her and you cheer her on when she tries to fight against the very machine that’s imprisoning her (in some cases literally fighting and breaking bits of it that are attempting to kill her on the grounds of compassion). It’s a very hard performance to pull off since she spends the entire film basically lying in one position.
That cramped space and lack of movement means that the camera department had to work overtime to really keep this film from looking boring and to their credit, even with the minimal amount of physical space that they had to work with, they managed to create a visually dynamic film that never really loses the claustrophobic feel but also never feels like it’s just repeating the same couple of shots. There’s a lot of thought and care put into this film to make it look as good as can be, considering the self-imposed limitation of a single single-bed-sized set.
Let’s just call out the obvious thing while we’re here, Oxygen is basically the 2010 film Buried but with a sci-fi coat of paint. The shots, the scenario, even most of the obstacles that keep popping up are pretty much the same. This isn’t a bad thing, films copy each other all the time and as long as you do it well then no one cares… Oxygen does it really well, taking the elements of Buried that worked and using the change in technology to give it a unique spin that still holds up. Also this one actually does have a slightly different ending to Buried (although I prefer how Buried ended to how this one does but we’re not spoiling that).
If you’re looking for a decent little thriller, Oxygen is a pretty good option to go with. Hell, make it a double feature with Buried and you can have a full 3 hours of claustrophobic thrills and chills with some incredible acting to make it through. Oxygen is certainly the least extreme film Alexandre Aja has made so far, but it still shows off just how skilled a director he is and has me looking forward to whatever’s coming next.