Directed by: Alexandre Aja || Produced by: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, Vincent Maraval, Brahim Chioua, Noëmie Devide
Screenplay by: Christie LeBlanc || Starring: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi
Music by: Robin Coudert || Cinematography: Maxime Alexandre || Edited by: Hervé Schneid || Country: United States, France || Language: English
Running Time: 101 minutes
Long have I sung the praises of Vincenzo Natali’s Cube (1997), a creative, influential cult science-fiction movie that popularized the concept of shooting an entire genre film in a single location, whereby the main cast are trapped in some kind of abstract or complicated maze from which they must escape. Descendants of this film include David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002), a movie about a family sheltering in place during a home break-in, John Erick Dowdle’s Devil (2010), a supernatural horror film about strangers trapped in an elevator, Buried (2010), an English-language Spanish flick about heartthrob Ryan Reynolds buried alive inside a coffin, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015), which concerned a punk rock band under assault inside a Neo-Nazi clubhouse, Natali’s own In the Tall Grass (2019), with characters lost inside a supernatural tallgrass prairie and time-loop, and The Platform (2019, El Hoyo), the directorial debut of Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, where people are caged inside a vertical prison with limited food and water.
Of all the aforementioned, Buried is closest in premise and style to the subject of today’s discussion, Alexandre Aja’s Oxygen (Oxygène), a recent Netflix exclusive about protagonist Mélanie Laurent, who awakes in a medical cryogenic pod with no memory of who she is or how she got there. Fans of claustrophobic tension and limited location-photography will have a ball with this film, as Aja and cinematographer Maxim Alexandre, partners on previous high-concept films like High Tension (2003, Haute Tension), The Hills Have Eyes (2006) remake, and Crawl (2019), make the most out of their tiny, tiny primary set. Though Oxygen extends into other locations via flashbacks as Laurent’s amnesia fades, the vast majority of the movie takes place in its cryogenic prison, as it should. For at least 90 of this film’s 101 minutes, we are stuck with Laurent inside this low-lit interior, immersed in her panic and paranoia as she slowly depletes her O2 supply.
The sound-design of Oxygen is as impressive as its creative visuals, which amplify the claustrophobic atmosphere within the pod as Laurent claws, scratches, and thinks her way to survival while the narrative’s titular ticking clock maintains a brisk pace. One can almost feel the detailed interior of the cryogenic tube thanks to the memorable sound edits and mixing, none more important than Mathieu Amalric’s soothing vocal performance as the voice of the pod’s artificial intelligence, the Medical Interface Liaison Officer, or MILO. These effective soundscapes both enhance the movie’s tone as well as Laurent’s performance. Most memorable of all is how Oxygen’s sound-design dovetails with Alexandre’s cinematography and the movie’s limited but well made special FX in the movie’s final act, where the full scope of Laurent’s geographic location and the purpose of her capture are revealed. Even the musical score soars at this critical moment following an effective jump-scare, a powerful audio crescendo paired with an even more significant long-take that dissolves back into an extreme close-up of Laurent’s eye.
With a movie concept this specialized, there have to be drawbacks, right? As much as I hate to admit it, several weaknesses undercut the fun of Oxygen’s premise and weaken its narrative conclusion. The first problem concerns the number of and amount of time spent on flashback sequences, most of which are shot with obnoxious, overexposed lighting and weird color-grading to make sure the audiences knows these are flashbacks, flashbacks that happened in the past. While necessary to the story and mostly devoid of dialogue, the visual style of these expository sequences contrast with the primary storyline in a bad way. Just as bad are elements of the cartoony holographic interface that Laurent uses to search for online details of her biography, as well as the comical old-age makeup on an important character in a video Laurent finds within this interface. Most problematic of all, however, is the unnecessary, cornball epilogue shot against an obvious green-screen that ruins any ambiguity of the story’s conclusion.
Some of my aforementioned complaints may sound like superfluous minor details, or nitpicks, but they’re not. In a film this limited and focused in setting, weaknesses like those described above compound when you’re stuck with the principal character(s) in the same spot for well over an hour. There’s little else to distract the viewer other than the core concept of the trap itself and a few narrative revelations along the way. That’s why, say, the bad acting of Cube or the on-the-nose dream sequences of The Platform distract more from the good stuff than similar problems in movies not limited to a single location.
That being said, the majority of Oxygen is a cramped, claustrophobic good time. It takes a premise that, on its surface, would be exhausted for drama in a 10-minute short and somehow expands that premise to feature-length format while not losing, but rather expanding upon its narrative tension. While Oxygen’s silly flashback cutaways, bad epilogue, and other problems distract from its powerful core more than your average film, its specialized single-location plot-device demonstrates cinematic merit in ways other genre films like Monsters (2010), Under the Skin (2013), I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016), most everything by Ti West, etc., themselves glorified short films ballooned to 90 minutes or longer, do not.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Another descendent of Vincenzo Natali’s Cube further proves the potential of features shot in one location with a great, multilayered premise behind that location. Whereas many similar films on paper fail to take full advantage of their synopses, Oxygen milks every ounce of tension from its confined geography, committed lead (really, solo) performance from Mélanie Laurent, and delicious ticking clock element.
— However… numerous minor problems stack upon one another in Oxygen’s repetitive environment, including heavy-handed flashbacks, some unbelievable digital FX, bad makeup, and a pointless epilogue.
? What’s the purpose of replicating humanity elsewhere if everyone on this planet dies? Interstellar (2014)?