What’s scarier than being trapped in an enclosed space with only hours left to live and no one around to help you? If your answer isn’t already, “Nothing, that sounds like my worst nightmare,” watch Oxygen. It will change your mind in no time.
Directed by Alexandre Aja (Crawl, Horns), Oxygen is a French sci-fi thriller with a healthy dash of horror added in. In many ways, it feels like a spiritual successor to 2010’s Buried, which saw Ryan Reynolds buried underground with only a few tools to survive. Oxygen puts a futuristic spin on that concept, with its main character Liz (Mélanie Laurent) waking up in a cryogenic pod with no memory of who she is or why she’s there. To make matters worse, no one seems to be nearby, and the pod’s oxygen levels have fallen to 33 percent. Unless Liz can find help, it’s only a matter of time before she suffocates.
It’s easy to understand how anyone would freak out in this situation, and unsurprisingly Liz does just that. But she also takes quick stock of her surroundings, working to contact the outside world and figure out just why she’s in this position. Her biggest help here is M.I.L.O. (voiced by Mathieu Amalric), an AI that takes the shape of a nebulous blue circle gazing down at Liz. M.I.L.O. clearly has its own set of protocols that prevent it from giving Liz all the information she needs outright. Through some clever questioning, Liz is able to work through those protocols and discover some new nuggets of inspiration. These discoveries are among the most satisfying things about this movie. Every time Liz learns something new, it’s a relief to her and to the viewer — she’s one step closer to maybe making it out of this situation alive.
Why is Liz in this cryogenic pod? Where even is the pod? Who was Liz before this? Oxygen is so full of twists and turns that to say anything more would risk spoiling the fun. Christie LeBlanc’s screenplay will keep you guessing as to what Liz’s plight is. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, you get another piece of intel that turns your previous notion on its head.
One of the biggest challenges a movie set in a confined space has to contend with is how to establish who the main character is outside of this scenario, or how they can even contact the outside world. Oxygen adds another level of challenge with Liz’s amnesia. The movie’s solution to this is a combination of quick flashes of memory and conversations with people Liz calls through M.I.L.O. At times these can tend towards exposition dump territory, and the flashbacks tend to hinder rather than help the mysteries at the heart of the film, but the urgency of Laurent’s performance helps move the film along in the occasional moments where the pacing lags.
Coming after over a year of isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oxygen preys on our fears of loneliness and resonates in a way it might not have had it been released in, say, 2019.
Oxygen could easily have fallen apart with a lesser central performance, but Laurent delivers something truly remarkable. Faced with the daunting task of acting against a blue light and some disembodied voices, Laurent nails every beat, whether it’s panic, determination, despair, or pure anger. Each ragged breath or sob or scream reminds you of the pod’s ever-decreasing oxygen levels. Laurent takes a character who knows nothing about herself at the beginning of the movie and turns her into a hero we can immediately root for and empathize with. When she holds her breath to conserve oxygen, we hold our own alongside her.
Aja stays close on Laurent’s face for much of the film, framing her in M.I.L.O.’s ring or the harsh white lights of the pod. The entire movie, apart from the flashbacks, takes place in this tight space, which Aja captures from every angle. The result is a highly claustrophobic experience that will surely induce fear, even if you’re watching this movie in a wide open area.
While Oxygen isn’t strictly a horror movie, it generates a number of scares on top of the general claustrophobia. There’s the existential dread of seeing the oxygen levels ticking steadily downwards, as well as the creeping realization that Liz might be beyond help. Coming after over a year of isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oxygen preys on our fears of loneliness and resonates in a way it might not have had it been released in, say, 2019.
Aja also draws on his horror background to incorporate a few well-timed jump scares and some gnarly scenes involving needles. One of Oxygen’s most unsettling and effective images comes near the beginning of the film: Red lights flash as Liz comes to in her pod, encased in a netted cocoon keeping her in place. When she tears through the membrane of this cocoon to take her first unobstructed breath, it’s like a terrible birth ushering Liz and the viewer into this new, claustrophobic world.
Oxygen is an intense but rewarding watch. Even if you are able to figure out the big twists early on, it’s still exciting to see Liz peel away layer after layer of mystery until she arrives at the truth. It’s also incredibly compelling to watch Liz (re)discover herself and reckon with whether the life she led outside the pod is worth fighting tooth and nail to return to. Get ready for suspense, fear, and a tremendous performance from Laurent, and whatever you do, don’t forget to hold your breath.