Oxygen (2021)

Directed by Alexandre Aja
Written by Christie LeBlanc

As humans, fear of death is the ultimate fear. No matter how, where, why, etc., is death is the ultimate consequence, then it is by default scary as shit. There is nothing worse. Then it is unsurprising that an entire genre of filmmaking is dedicated to getting scared about potentially dying. Horror is, admittedly, not one of my favorite genres as it is for so many others. There is perhaps no other genre with as large a cult following as horror (sci-fi might be a close second). But when someone really loves horror, they really love it. This sort of dedicated fan base is a joy, even for something so macabre. But what it also means is that there are a absolute ton of horror movies getting made and released, partly also because it’s the perfect entry genre for filmmakers with a budget. There is so much innovation and imagination that goes into making a small budget horror movie, that it’s been the learning grounds for countless filmmakers who have gone on to larger commercial success. I wish I loved it more, and while I say that, I am still a fan, but horror has been and remains one of the genres I likely know the least about, and could afford to explore at much greater depth. Hey, let’s start with Oxygen.

One of our greatest fears, as a subgenre to simply dying, would be being buried alive. That’s essentially what happens to our hero (Melanie Laurent) in Oxygen. She awakens in a cryogenic chamber well ahead planned completion, and quickly learns from the system’s OS, MILO (Mathieu Amalric) that her oxygen is quickly depleting. Not remembering anything about who she is, where she’s from, or where she’s going, our hero must quickly work with MILO to find help and figure out what went wrong. Along the way, she slowly starts to unravel the mystery, and remember who she is. Hope is not lost, and in fact it might be all she has left, as she calls the authorities in hopes of being found in time to survive. But can she recall enough to be saved?

Oxygen is a bit of a wonder. It’s a French film which follows a horror formula we’ve seen before: trapped in one location, with no recollection of how you got there, and a ticking clock down to when you might die unless you can figure out a way to get out alive. It’s nothing new in that respect, in fact it’s a very tried and true scenario for horror films. And for good reason, as it largely works as an edge of your seat, nail biting experience. But as with any formula, the inputs have to be right in order to make it work, otherwise it’s mere mimicry. The best thing Oxygen has going for it is the mystery at its center. Who is this woman trapped in the cryo-chamber? Why is she there, where is she going, why has it failed? Directed Alexandre Aja does a great job of balancing the unknown with introducing just enough information at the right times throughout the experience to keep the audience guessing, while still engaged and not alienated by the proceedings. It is a delicate balance, but one that the film pulls off quite well.

In fact, the intrigue is the engine of the movie, because otherwise, we’re sitting in a cryo-chamber with Melanie Laurent the whole time, with not much else in terms of visuals to keep us interested. It’s quite the magic trick if you think about it. Spending an entire 100 minute movie inside a small chamber with a single character the entire time, just doesn’t work if you don’t have the other elements. And Melanie Laurent really keeps us interested, invested, and intrigued throughout. It’s not an easy performance to carry the entire movie, but Laurent pulls it off as well. We freak out along with her, meditate along with her, think critically along with her. And Mathieu Amalric as the voice of the OS brings us a certain calm as well. His deep, soothing French voice there to just keep us level headed, even as he nonchalantly tells us we have minutes to live on the oxygen levels left in the chamber. It’s really sneaky good casting to bring him in to voice the OS. And for a movie with only really two characters, Laurent and Amalric are two of the best to cast in the roles.

The twists and turns of the movie come fast and with pretty catastrophic consequences. Aja’s deft touch with the pacing of the film is really what makes it work. We feel claustrophobic along with Laurent, but not to the point that the film becomes insufferable from spending so much time inside the capsule without a break. Mixed in are a few memory sequences to help break up the walls from closing in around us feeling, but even Aja’s use of the camera does a good job of not going overboard throughout the film. This could have easily turned into a frantic, hard-to-watch scenario, and while it is hard to watch, claustrophobic, and nerve-wracking, it is not to the point that you feel you must escape the experience. Quite the opposite in fact, it manages to pull you into the film, become fully invested in Laurent and her outcome, seeing it through to the end. So while the film pulls heavily from elements we’ve seen in horror films before, it is a polished and accomplished delivery of these elements, standing up next to the best examples of execution in the genre. It’s worth checking out if you like this sort of thing, or just want to enjoy the incredibly soothing, dulcet tones of one Mathieu Amalric.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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