“It’s hard not to feel disappointed by the critical choices the film makes as it barrels toward the finale, exchanging lean and minimalist thrills for confounding worldbuilding.”
by Ken Bakely
At the start of Alexandre Aja’s Oxygen, a woman (Mélanie Laurent) awakes in a carefully sealed medical pod, roused from cryosleep as the capsule’s air supply begins to malfunction and rapidly drain. She does not know where she is, when she is, or how she got there. She doesn’t even know her name. She calls for help, but the police are ineffective and seemingly cannot ping her location; she’s accompanied primarily by the voice of MILO (Mathieu Amalric), the AI which controls her pod – with all sorts of frightening, automated components that she has no control over – and must piece together clues that may shed some light on her identity and what’s happened to her, all while in a very precarious race against time. As the setup for this story, this is a mightily effective start: Aja’s taught direction and Laurent’s singularly intense performance plunge us into this world, in which we as viewers are meant to be as confused and disoriented as Laurent’s character. It is an accomplished entry point – an admirably minimal and yet evocative approach – that establishes the best case for what the movie is capable of, even if it doesn’t fully hold up to this potential.
Eventually, the film expands outwards – we learn the protagonist’s name (Elizabeth Hansen) and her profession (a doctor performing cryogenics research). She uses the pod’s limited internet capabilities to research further information and assemble more memories. She tries to remember snippets of her work, her home, and her husband, Léo (Malik Zidi), a fellow doctor. It’s here when Oxygen moves from the barebones setup of its opening mysteries and becomes something more formally and thematically wide-ranging. But the name of the game remains disorientation, and Christine LeBlanc’s script creates more than a few wild journeys for Elizabeth to be subject to: it’s clear that she cannot even take her own basic assumptions for granted, as the effects of her cryogenic state and a lack of any anchoring information to support her guesses are compounded by illusions of consciousness itself. Her memories, hallucinations, and the inability to tell which one is which set the film up for some big revelations and sudden shifts in its own reality when it does reveal what’s going on. The movie uses these twists to deliver some reeling surprises to Elizabeth (if not quite as surprising to the audience), but eventually, it begins to do so at the cost of its taut structure and focus. As the movie nears its end, it begins veering dangerously close to just becoming a linear delivery system for its own busy plotting, which clutters the proceedings and lets off some of the tension.
After all that’s been shown (or not shown), and all that Elizabeth has gone through, it’s hard not to feel disappointed by the critical choices the film makes as it barrels toward the finale, exchanging lean and minimalist thrills for confounding worldbuilding: it seeks to tie up every loose end so totally and with such sudden ferocity that it starts answering questions it never asked in the first place. Oxygen can’t resolve its mysteries in a way that’s tonally consistent from where it’s thrived: all its deepest and most rewarding accomplishments come when it forensically explores the parameters of the pod setting, Elizabeth’s stunned confusion, and the inherent drama therein, pushing into the finer details that make everything feel so tangible. So many of the movie’s smaller touches remain memorable as a result – from the clinical blue lights of the pod; to the the sharp beeps and whirs of the machinery and monitors; to the contrast between Amalric’s cooly disembodied, omnipresent voice and Laurent’s viscerally claustrophobic fears amid more existential terrors. However, none of this can exist with quite the same power when the movie concerns itself more with a growing series of rug-pulls that simply feel obligatory.