Capsule Review: Oxygen (2021)

French director Alexandre Aja, whose last directorial effort was the thrilling 2019 alligator feature Crawl, made his first native film in 18 years since the gory 2003’s Haute Tension. Here, he tries his hand at making a film set (almost) entirely in a confined space and in this case of Netflix’s French-language Oxygen, the story takes place inside a coffin-like cryogenic chamber. It instantly reminds me of Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried (2010), which starred Ryan Reynolds as an unfortunate victim trapped in a wooden coffin.

But unlike Buried, Aja doesn’t exactly embrace the limitation of its genre as he relies heavily on numerous flashbacks, which in turn, often deplete the claustrophobic tension intended for this kind of film.

Still, I have to admit Christie LeBlanc’s high-concept screenplay has an interesting hook: A woman (Melanie Laurent, a role originally intended for Anne Hathaway and later Noomi Rapace) finds herself suddenly awakened in a cryogenic chamber. She has no idea how or why she got here and doesn’t even know her own identity. To avoid spoilers, here’s what you need to know: Her only access to the outside world relies heavily on a HAL-9000-like computer named MILO (voiced by Mathieu Amalric) to garner whatever information she can use in order to find out the truth. And of course, recover her lost memories.

However, there’s more as she only has less than an hour to live since her oxygen level is running low.

A scene from Netflix's "Oxygen" (2021)

Reportedly shot between France’s first and second waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, Oxygen has a few worthwhile suspenseful moments (a scene involving Melanie Laurent’s character trying to struggle with an automated needle trying to inject into her body comes to mind). Aja and his frequent cinematographer Maxime Alexandre manage to find ways for various camera placements within the cramped space of the cryogenic chamber.

Then, there’s Melanie Laurent, who’s pretty much a one-woman show throughout the film, even though Oxygen does rely on other actors to fill in the screen time. She shows a good deal of varied emotion with her overall engaging, yet sympathetic performance.

It’s just too bad Oxygen could have been a great single-location film if not for the aforementioned flashbacks while the 100-minute running time tends to stretch longer than it should. A tighter edit would have been much appreciated here to sustain the tension.

Oxygen is currently streaming on Netflix.