Oxygen starts intriguingly, stumbles into an unalluring ponder, and then recovers into one of the more compelling streaming sci-fi movies of the lockdown era.
In the Christie LeBlanc-penned Oxygen, Elizabeth (Mélanie Laurent) awakes choking. She’s in a dimly lit cryogenic pod, face covered in a suffocating cocoon, arms pinned by netting. She’s a pincushion of IVs and central lines. Her entire world is bound by a few inches on every side with no memory of who she is, where she is, or how she got there. A voice-controlled computer is her only company, and it promptly informs her that she has less than two hours of oxygen remaining. She proceeds to science the shit out of her situation.
The hook lands resoundingly. However, the movie then flounders for a bit before finding its footing again. To explain how, I need to go into spoilers. Normally, I’m indifferent to twists being spoiled, but this is the particular sort of film where the discovery is part of the experience. I don’t mean in the sense of Shyamalan twists that only land when unexpected, like mental jump-scares. I mean that the process is intertwined with the experience. I’d say watch Oxygen cold without spoilers.
As Elizabeth tries to figure out what’s going on, we’re drawn with her into her first instinct: there is a conspiracy afoot. Malicious people have done something terrible, burying her in this tube to kill her. Given what she knows, it’s a reasonable assumption. However, this fakeout proved frustrating, lulling us into thinking we’ve already seen this movie before. It makes us think we’re watching mildly sci-fi-tinged Buried. So, we’re starting to check out, getting annoyed by things like her internet and phone service conveniently working, and rolling our eyes at the cryptically unhelpful voices on the other end of the telephone line, who promise info without ever revealing anything.
That it ultimately goes in a different direction is to Oxygen’s credit. The film has something interesting to say beyond the moody claustrophobia and helplessness, but it requires trusting that the story is going to go somewhere interesting. After the last year of streaming sci-fi movies (Cosmic Sin, Midnight Sky, Outside the Wire, Useless Humans, Stowaway), I had very little trust left in me. This time, trust the director.
Alexandre Aja breaks from his long career of horror (High Tension, Piranha 3D, Crawl) to deliver something that draws on his skill for suspense, but accomplishes something much quieter and more thoughtful than his oeuvre implies.
The movie does such a good job with that fake-out that by the thirty-minute mark, you’re watching your clock waiting for the clichés to wind their way out so you can start typing the review. And then it all clicks into place and the inconsistencies make perfect sense and the movie gets interesting and good.
There’s an old programmer joke about how the good thing about computers is that they do exactly what you tell them to do. It’s also the bad thing about computers. Elizabeth’s only company in the pod is a virtual intelligence that is maddeningly literal in that precise sense. The movie’s plot wouldn’t happen at all if M.I.L.O. (voiced by Mathieu Amalric) had an ounce of helpfulness or sentience. On the one hand, half the movie can be dismissed as an elaborate exercise in navigating automated phone menus. But on the other hand, it’s an apt demonstration of just how much wisdom is based—not on knowing the answers—but on knowing the right questions to ask.
For her part, Laurent is fantastic in this, carrying a film entirely on her ability to emote and physically act within a box. She drags the viewer along with the gradient of frustration, rage, confusion, and ultimate elation.
In the end, Oxygen shoves you in a box so that you can brush up against infinity. Those questions of identity, of who we are when everything is stripped away come into focus. It’s a film that succeeds at being more than the sum of its parts by intertwining a story of life finding a way with whispers of a ship of Theseus.
Oxygen is now on Netflix.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.