'Oxygen' Review: Mélanie Laurent Needs To Take A Breath In Alexandre Aja's Claustrophobic Thriller
When a streaming company or film studio releases movies every week, it can be pretty challenging to pick out the projects that truly show some promise and that goes for both viewers and that distributor. Director Alexandre Aja's minimalistic science fiction mystery Oxygen (Oxygène in French) is unfortunately falling victim to that situation so you just have to wish that it becomes a slow-burner since this is more on the quality side, rather than on the quantity side.
Mélanie Laurent stars as a woman who wakes up cocooned in a cryogenic chamber, unnamed first as she suspects that she's suffering from memory loss. The chamber is very advanced and comes with A.I. called M.I.L.O, which helps the woman first figure out her name to be Liz before being the key for more information, catch being that the chamber can't be opened since that would require an admin code. This leads to Liz's race against time to find a way out before she runs out of oxygen.
Recognising that this is sci-fi ultimately, you often see movies in the genre relying on their A.I. part and sticking strictly to the mission which would here be getting out of the chamber. Oxygen manages to subvert that expectation, thanks to Christie LeBlanc's introspective script, finding time to explore Liz's increasing panic and keeping eyes at the mystery. Some of the conversations between Liz and M.I.L.O drag slightly in the first half of the movie and so you may be a bit frustrated with the pace that the story plays out, however that ends up being only a small nuisance because the payoff comes at right moment, about an hour in to the film. Notable is that without Laurent's strong central performance, the first half could be a bore - thankfully the hard feat of displaying hysteria, confusion, determination and disillusion (in that order) is acted deftly by her.
Throughout the film, there is an entrancing musical score by Rob that is effectively creating a smothering feeling with its lush synths, which then brings in more orchestral elements as Liz begins to put pieces together. Also while apparently shot with COVID-19 restrictions in place (naturally implemented in one scene even), smaller budget and crew than your normal sci-fi thriller, Oxygen's visual effects work overtime. Avoiding spoilers here but at that hour mark when the film opens itself up, those visuals really fit the scale of the film just like the imagery of M.I.L.O does but they also look futuristic. At that point I really didn't even mind that I had guessed one of the mysteries correctly because there ended up being other surprises when the world outside of Liz unfolds. Tight technical execution, Laurent's demanding performance and uncertain atmosphere will keep you in the cryogenic chamber until then.
Smileys: Screenplay, VFX, score, Mélanie Laurent
Frowneys: Pacing in the first half
Those little hooligans who let their phone battery drop to single digits won't probably feel the same amount of anxiety. Shame on them.