Oxygen Review: One of the strongest and most intense sci-fi thrillers to date
The latest film from High Tension and Crawl director Alexandre Aja, Oxygen, is a very methodically told sci-fi thriller with claustrophobic intensity.
The film instantly delivers that traumatic fear of being buried alive as it follows a woman named Liz (Melanie Laurent) who finds herself trapped in an airtight medical cryogenic unit while her oxygen supply quickly runs low. Her memory is so foggy when she awakes that she barely even remembers her own name and now must piece together why she is in this cryogenic coffin and how can escape before her oxygen supply is gone.
Aja is a highly underrated horror/suspense master and has continued to showcase his talents with films like Crawl and even more so with Oxygen. The film utilizes its compact environment incredibly well with its super tight framing and close-ups that make you feel incredibly choked inside this futuristic coffin. Outside of some flashes of Liz’s memory, there’s no escape from this unsettling setting and there are dire stakes established early on and maintained throughout. Every time the cryogenic unit’s advanced A.I. MILO (voiced by Mathieu Amalric) reminds Liz how much oxygen is left; the intensity of the situation heightens greatly and you can feel yourself tensing up as the oxygen level slowly but surely depletes. It’s a fear that movies like Buried have showcased before but are made a little more unique here with how MILO and certain futuristic elements play a strong role in challenging Liz’s survival.
Although MILO is mainly meant to help Liz, his protocols and programming make him a major hinderance at times and even a bit of an antagonist. From watching Liz battle with the horrific devices and safety measures in the unit to her constantly being unable to do things because of MILO’s programming, MILO tends to feel more like a harbinger of death than a helpful A.I. There’s almost sort of a mental game being played between them at times with Liz having to find specific ways to ask MILO things in order to get real progress in surviving this ordeal. Their relationship is actually very compelling at times to see play out and there’s even some humorous dialogue between them about how his programming is essentially to make her feel powerless. Also, I just really love the last little moment they have together because it’s oddly warming.
It’s also thrilling to watch her battle severe mental threats as there are secretive motivations from others that she discovers that make her escape even more challenging and hallucinatory moments of horror that make you question what’s real and what’s not. Although Liz’s flashbacks and certain people she’s able to contact through MILO can make you feel like you have a grip on what’s happening, there’s really nothing you can fully trust. The film constantly changes your perceptions on the people Liz is interacting with and how she’s interpreting her own memories, so there’s always a big shocking turn just around the corner that changes everything you thought to be true. Admittedly, there can definitely be a lot going on and the film take things to wildly unexpected territories that can be a tad convoluted, but the combination of Aja’s excellent story direction and Christie LeBlanc’s writing is so strong that it makes Oxygen’s storytelling legitimately impressive.
This film really does have a lot to it, sometimes too much that it drags the pacing a bit, but it’s able to create such a thrilling through line and effectively utilize its story details so well that it ends up being an incredible watch. The way the film can make seemingly unimportant visuals, like the helicopter seeds, have a big impact creates these really cool connections between Liz’s memories and her current situation. It’s ability to deliver subtle reveals is even better as there are so many moments throughout that will leave you wide-eyed with how a singular moment can blow the whole situation wide-open. There’s truly no detail left unused or any stone unturned with this story and the way flashbacks are slowly expanded upon to add more depth to Liz’s past and her current situation really makes this story full of endless excitement.
At the center of all of this is Laurent’s incredible performance. Although she’s trapped and has no memory of pretty much anything, Liz ends up being incredibly capable. Her survival instincts are strong and even when she’s at her lowest and ready to succumb to her gruesome fate, she finds that one little detail that offers a glimmer of hope and a possible chance at survival. Laurent brings a great physical and mental presence to Liz as well as an emotional mix of despair and determination that makes you believe that she can survive. She even makes the film’s lamer hallucinatory horrors more believable and the medical nightmare moments full of horrific cringe. It’s actually worth noting that those medicinal horrors play a really great role in making the film’s final moments absolutely nerve-shredding and are truly thrilling. It’s also great that the film never makes Liz’s survival guaranteed and keeps you on edge as the oxygen level drains to zero.
Oxygen is one of Aja’s best films with the claustrophobic thrill ride it presents that gets your heart racing and the incredibly strong storytelling that keeps you guessing and is elevated through Laurent’s top-tier performance. Anyone with a Netflix account needs to put Oxygen on your watchlist because it’s one of the platform’s strong thrillers yet.