Director: Alexandre Aja
Stars: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi
Cinemas may have reopened across the country (yay!), but there are still plenty of viewing options for those wary of rushing back to ‘normal’, And, around here at least, something new from Alexandre Aja is usually enough to pique curiosity. If you’re cycling endlessly through Netflix’s block puzzle of Content, you might just spot his latest; a high-concept single-location sci-fi thriller starring Mélanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds).
We’ve seen this type of thing before, from Phone Booth to Burial to Solis, and getting the right configuration of elements to sustain such a vehicle can be a tricky task. Too often such flicks struggle to escape a sense of elaborate gimmickry.
Elizabeth Hansen (Laurent) awakens in a cryogenic chamber, unaware of how she got there, how long she’s been there, or even her own identity. With the aid of the pod’s built-in computer interface M.I.L.O. (voiced by Mathieu Amalric) she is able to determine some of these mysteries, though why she’s been interred this way remains a tantalising mystery. More pressing is the discovery that she’s trapped, with a rapidly diminishing oxygen supply, awoken only due to a malfunction.
From the off there’s a sense of rebirth. ‘Liz’ is cocooned within the pod and, on rousing, has to burst herself free. Transformation persists throughout, from imagery of seeds and infection, to the womb-like enclosure only enhanced by M.I.L.O’s undulating ultrasound-looking avatar.
For Aja one senses something of a rebirth, too. His output to date has been defiantly (admirably) genre related. From High Tension through Piranha 3D to alligator caper Crawl. Oxygen obviously carries on this tradition, but by its very nature needs to be more character driven than his usual fare. Enclosed in a single location – a medical coffin filled with Minority Report-style wipe-screens – the environment for Liz and ourselves is antiseptic, impersonal, sterile. The key human element in order for us to engage must come from Laurent. She is a talented actor, no doubt, but Liz’s amnesiac state makes her something of a blank slate. She’s easy to empathise with due to the claustrophobic situation, but who is she?
The film addresses this in scattergun style with memories of a past – and a husband (Malik Zidi) – fluttering in at intervals (also allowing us contrasting images of nature; skies). But even these flashbacks can’t be trusted. Persistently we’re left floundering for context (though, that’s rather the point). Otherwise, Liz’s only contact with the outside world comes through a series of broken telephone calls that she makes with M.I.L.O. as her PA.
Still, for all it’s self-imposed obstacles, Oxygen remains nimble, as mid-film revelations re-frame Liz’s situation and, if anything, boost us further into the realms of ambitious sci-fi. And not a moment too soon. One prodigious VFX shot later, we’re once more left a little adrift but, with Laurent’s help, a little more connected to this woman and her plight even as it grows evermore fantastic.
Danger presents itself, not just in the grim countdown on Liz’s O2 supply, but via M.I.L.O’s rather callous insistence on euthenising her. Liz’s life expectancy has been reduced by an algorithm. According to probability she has zero chance of survival, so the machine is doing the ‘humane’ thing. It speaks to our growing cultural unease over such automation and computer-led thought. The ways in which we allow machines to profile us and how directly our options are affected (see Netflix doc Coded Bias for more on this subject).
After nigh-on 15 months of lockdowns and mass infections, a film so concentrated on confinement and health scares isn’t quite as fun as Aja may have hoped, even if it does tap into elements of our collective anxiety. The trashier tics of Aja’s past works are mostly absent, aside from a mildly fetishistic preoccupation regarding the intertwining of the biological and mechanical. Liz is hooked up to all kinds of monitoring devices and frequently finds her legs entangled in an array of tubes and cables. In that sense Oxygen is somewhat indebted to the works of H.R. Giger, Shin’ya Tsukamoto and Masamune Shirow. If anything, it doesn’t push this angle hard enough. It’d have been ‘nice’ to see Aja’s indulgence and perversion manifest more willingly.