Netflix UK film review: Oxygen
Luke Channell | On 14, May 2021
Director: Alexandre Aja
Cast: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi
Where to watch Oxygen online in the UK: Netflix UK
At their best, single-location films can amplify feelings of claustrophobia, isolation and unpredictability, but they can just as easily fall into gimmickry and tedium. To remain engaging, these chamber pieces need a compelling lead character, imaginative direction and a gripping narrative. Thankfully, B-movie horror expert Alexandre Aja’s latest film Oxygen delivers on all fronts with a thrilling, twisting sci-fi mystery and a magnificent central turn from Mélanie Laurent.
Oxygen opens on Laurent’s character gasping for air, as she awakens inside a futuristic cryo-chamber with no memory of who she is or what she is doing there. She is addressed as Omicron 267 by the chamber’s AI assistant MILO (Mathieu Amalric), who informs her that her pod has malfunctioned, and her oxygen levels are at 35 per cent and quickly declining. Entrapped within the confines of this capsule and with just over an hour of oxygen reserves left, Omicron 267 frantically questions the aloof MILO as she tries to contact the outside world and piece together her forgotten identity. As Omicron 267’s desperation escalates, she must contend with disorientating flashbacks, misleading callers and the pod’s automated sedative procedure to uncover the truth.
The film’s claustrophobic set-up means that Laurent features in virtually every frame and she shines in every single one. Swinging between determination, despair and even droll humour, Laurent makes every emotion deeply felt with a masterful close-up performance. Her interactions with MILO (brilliantly voiced by Amalric in calm yet slightly sinister tones) are constantly intriguing and even provide moments of light-hearted relief, as she attempts to obtain useful information out of an inflexible AI. While the plot can border on the preposterous, Laurent’s ability to exude the internal and external crisis running through her character’s mind grounds the film in believability.
Aja’s return to French-language cinema exhibits just how much he can accomplish when his typical horror excesses are stripped back, and he works with a taut, focused script. Although he does shoehorn in a few cheap jump scares, it’s the fluid, inventive camerawork which glides around the pod that helps maintain a steady momentum. Christie LeBlanc’s debut screenplay is also perfectly calibrated, growing in intrigue and poignancy as the film’s secrets are teased out. Alongside the excellently crafted, authentically futuristic cryo-chamber and an emotive ethereal score, Oxygen’s high-concept script achieves some impressive cinematic world-building within such a limited space.
Whether intentional or not, Oxygen clearly mirrors the isolation anxieties of pandemic life which imbues the film with a greater resonance. While the film marks a more restrained approach from Aja’s usual fare, it’s also his most polished, riveting outing yet. Buoyed by an outstanding performance from Laurent, Oxygen provides bold, breathtaking sci-fi entertainment.
Oxygen is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.