Oxygen Synopsis: Elizabeth (Melanie Laurent) wakes up in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of how she got there. With her oxygen levels depleting, she must find a way out of her close-quarters setting before running out of air.
Few filmmakers have exhibited Alexandre Aja’s mastery of horror’s versatile sensibilities. From grizzly reinventions of adored staples (The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D) to electrifying genre-bending mash-ups (Horns is way too slept on), Aja’s lively artistry elevate whatever narrative he touches. Where filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster receive praise for their meditative expansions of horror’s echoing fears, Aja deserves similar recognition for his mastery of horror’s evocative, crowd-pleasing allures.
Aja’s latest breathless thrill ride, Oxygen, spins a revolving mystery from the confines of a futuristic chamber. While the film never reaches revelatory heights, Aja unsurprisingly crafts another taunt, roller coaster experience from his familiar assets.
Making a one-room setting, much less a claustrophobic chamber, visually dynamic takes rare inventiveness and ingenuity. Thankfully for Oxygen, those are skills Aja possesses in droves. Teamed with frequent collaborator Maxime Alexandre, the duo elicit a well-calibrated dynamism from every nook and cranny of their close-quarters setting. The camera’s zipping energy skillfully intensifies Elizabeth’s struggle to survive, with an accompaniment of kinetic edits and intimately sweaty frames luring audiences into the narrative’s enigmatic hook. Right from the film’s atmospheric introduction, Aja builds a palpable unease from his intensely chromatic setting (anytime there’s a coldly distant AI voice, you know shit is hitting the fan).
Oxygen’s assured sensibility serves as an initial hook, but it’s Mélanie Laurent’s revealing performance that truly captivates. Laurent unleashes a powerfully expressive effort as Elizabeth, tapping into the character’s hectic panic through her transfixing emotional gravity. The actress provides a much-needed anchor for the twisting narrative to revolve around, imbuing dramatic agency to keep audiences invested. Co-star Mathieu Amalric also deserves praise for his detached delivery as the AI unit M.I.L.O. Amalric’s unnerving delivery does a capable job of revitalizing a familiar science-fiction archetype.
Despite the great foundational pieces, Oxygen’s so-so screenplay holds the film back from reaching its full potential. First-time screenwriter Christie LeBlanc draws a capable narrative chock-full of winding twists and turns (the third act revelation lands with its intended impact). However, her script falls short at implementing weightier thematic conceits. The first two acts fixate on exposition-driven exchanges instead of delving into Elizabeth’s insular struggles with identity amidst her artificial surroundings.
Interesting wrinkles are introduced with the film’s effective twist, but the film becomes too enamored with busy thrills to explore them. This decision leaves audiences with a barebones story, a familiar narrative that can’t make audiences forget about its similar counterparts (2010’s Buried in particular).
Oxygen doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but the lively talents of its singular star and director shine more often than not. Audiences should have a blast unwinding this corkscrew narrative (pay attention, as the opening frames may be more telling than you think).