“Oxygen” breathes new life into a confined subgenre

Oxygen Mélanie Laurent in Oxygen. (Netflix)

Alexandre Aja’s latest thriller blends a stellar solo performance with palpable tension to set itself from the pack.

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Director Alexandre Aja built his career finding as many ways as possible to explore tension and suspense. His tone shifts from project to project, from the gruesome violence of The Hills Have Eyes to the goofiness of Piranha 3D. His most recent success, Crawl, was lauded as a true successor to Jaws—just swap the boat for a creepy house and the shark for a pack of gators. But always at the core of his work is Aja’s interest in finding new ways to thrill his audiences, and Oxygen is no different.

Oxygen’s premise is relatively simple, at least at first. A woman (Mélanie Laurent) wakes up with a start to find she’s locked inside a cryogenic chamber with no memory of who she is or how she got there. To make matters worse, her oxygen levels are rapidly depleting and she’s only got 45 minutes of air left to recall her past and find a way to escape. The running clock, confined space, and woman bent on survival make it feel like the best possible mashup of Gravity and Buried. That brings me to what’s most interesting about Oxygen: Aja’s lack of interest in creating an oppressively claustrophobic feel for the film.

Though our heroine (whom I’ll refer to as “the woman”) is essentially locked inside an incredibly high-tech coffin, the camera isn’t pressing in to create visceral discomfort in the way you’d imagine. Instead of a heavy emphasis on tight close-ups and cramped framing, Aja’s camera swirls around in disorienting 360s creating a dizzying effect, mirroring our protagonist’s extreme confusion.

[W]hat’s most interesting about Oxygen [is] Aja’s lack of interest in creating an oppressively claustrophobic feel for the film.

The tomb-like pod is less the cause of her horror than the setting perfectly designed to mimic it. Instead, the true horror is in the woman’s utter confusion. It’s the awful and harrowing realization not that she might die but that she might die without knowing why—why she’s there, why she can’t remember who she is, why anyone would do this to her. That’s the horror that interests Aja and what helps set the film apart from other claustrophobic films like Buried or even The Descent.

It’s this shift in emphasis that lets the woman’s character development take center stage and helps the audience become just as invested in unraveling this mystery as she is. Laurent’s performance here is also pitch-perfect, ping-ponging from manic frustration to deep despair to frantic curiosity and back again in a flash. Considering she does it all without a single other human being to act off of while confined to a pod is a feat in and of itself.

But perhaps the greatest achievement is how such a seemingly narrow story manages to be chock full of twists and turns, each more thrilling and delightful than the last. The story moves along at a clip, never bogged down by its constraints, only bolstered by them. Ultimately, it’s one of the most enjoyable and well-constructed bits of grounded sci-fi in recent years. It just goes to prove that when Aja’s instincts are on point, he can knock it out of the park.

Oxygen premieres on Netflix tomorrow, May 12.

Oxygen Trailer:

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