Fans of the horror genre will no doubt be familiar with filmmaker Alexandre Aja. The French director made a splash in the early 2000s with High Tension (also known as Switchblade Romance in the UK), a hyper-violent, nasty yet well-made and visceral slasher flick. On the strength of the breakthrough – which boasted great practical effects and sound design – he was tapped by Hollywood to produce a handful of horror remakes including The Hills Have Eyes and the surprisingly entertaining Pirahna 3D. This was before going on to helm some more original genre mash-ups such as his Joe Hill adaptation Horns or The 9th Life of Louis Drax, an oddity that felt like a Stephen King story got caught in a blender with Amelie.
Whether or not Aja’s projects are wholly successful or not, following his unique career you get the sense of a filmmaker trying to navigate the studio system in order to both flex his creative muscles and make the movies he personally would like to see. As such, it was gratifying to see his 2019 survival horror Crawl be a success with both critics and at the box office. Using the cache that comes with making a hit, Aja has now teamed up with Netflix for another self-contained thriller. Titled Oxygen, it sees the filmmaker returning to the French language for the first time since High Tension.
The movie centres on a woman (played by Inglourious Basterds’ Melanie Laurent) who wakes up in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of who she is and how she got there. Desperately trying to piece together fragments of her memories and escape the pod before running out of air, she must also deal with an occasionally helpful, occasionally murderous AI (voiced by Mathieu Amalric).
Netflix has warned critics against revealing any more about the plot. That is fair in this case, given how entertainingly loopy Oxygen becomes as more and more information is dished out about our protagonist and why she is in the chamber. Given its premise, viewers would be forgiven for mistaking the movie as being akin to something like Buried, a thriller set entirely in a claustrophobic setting, tapping into humans’ primal fear of being trapped. Yet, as Aja’s film starts to reveal itself, one gets the sense that what actually attracted him to Christie LeBlanc’s screenplay was the chance to shoot a movie mostly set in one space that simultaneously feels epic and expansive.
As such, viewers could be a tad thrown by Oxygen in its opening 20 minutes, with its sleek, futuristic-looking cyrogenic chamber setting lacking the everyday relatability of the coffin Ryan Reynolds’ found himself stuck inside in Buried or a phone booth or an escape room or any of the other tangible locations filmmakers have built entire movies mostly within. The real pleasure of Oxygen though is actually just trying to figure out what the hell is going on and Aja and LeBlanc continually pulling the rug out from under audiences. All the while, the movie is stylishly directed, with Aja seemingly managing to cram his camera into the tiniest corners of the chamber before eventually exiting it, dropping a major reveal through a frankly glorious one-take.
In movies like this, the central performance is key to their success. Laurent is excellent, beginning the film fuelled on pure anxiety before settling down and revealing more layers to her character – including a nicely sardonic sense of humour – as she remembers more about herself. Despite only appearing as a disembodied voice, Amalric leaves a major impression too as a Gallic HAL. His flat monotone manages to be oftentimes quite comical – anytime the hero’s blood pressure rises, he is quick to offer her a sedative – while terrifying anytime his programme forces him to commit actions that could hurt Laurent’s character.
Oxygen is not without fault. Ultimately it reveals itself more as being a solid genre exercise than anything truly substantial. While the movie does have some emotional beats, they don’t quite connect as they get lost in the plot mechanics and amongst all the major twists.
That said, Oxygen’s more nerve-wracking scenes and mystery-box plotting will keep viewers entertained and engaged. Plus, it’s great to see Netflix giving a spotlight to clearly talented filmmakers like Aja and highlighting that non-English language movies can also deliver blockbuster Hollywood-esque thrills.