One of the most exciting things about Director Alexandre Aja is that his work is always an exploration. This explorative element is what continues to draw viewers to his work because there is a guarantee that the viewer will be taken on a journey of some kind and left with their thoughts as the credits start to roll. While fans of Aja have come to expect a certain level of extremist thrill, his latest film, OXYGEN, thrills in a different way. Taking an intelligent script from Christie LeBlanc, and utilizing the full breadth of Mélanie Laurent’s range, the viewer will be left on the edge of their seat until the end, grasping onto hope in a way that might surprise. And, for the purpose of this review, this will be spoiler-free to preserve the surprises within the film.
The film focuses on a young woman (Mélanie Laurent), who awakens in a claustrophobia-inducing way to find herself in a cryogenic chamber pod. She has no idea how she got there nor does she seem to have any recollection of who she is. The pod’s internal computer system, M.I.L.O. (voiced by Mathieu Amalric), informs the young woman that the pod has been damaged. As such, she now only has 33% oxygen left within the pod and it’s reducing at an undetermined speed. With no help from the outside that is left predominantly unseen by the viewer, it is up to this woman to figure out who she is and – ultimately – figure out how she can survive as her oxygen stores deplete. Will she make it? You’ll just have to watch the film to find out.
Right off the bat, the stakes are high. And, as the mystery starts to peel back its layers onscreen, it adds even further depth as to why the young woman must succeed in figuring out a solution to the ideal. A lot of the credit for this must go to screenwriter Christie LeBlanc, who crafts a storyline that is all too relatable and necessary given the state of the world we’re in now. It’s intelligent and, while the bulk of the film is injected with adrenalin, there’s a heart that keeps everything grounded as the story moves towards revealing its bigger picture. While written before COVID-19 evolved and spread across the globe, there’s a timely relevance to the isolationist nature of the story as well. With many of us still working away from others, that feeling of having to survive or figure something out without resources hits more than expected. Aja helps push the more expositional-focused scenes with his direction, with Stéphane Roche’s editing prowess, which is most helpful in the more disorienting flashbacks.
At center stage, though, is Mélanie Laurent and, to be quite frank, OXYGEN is her film. All eyes are on her, made even more so due to the tightly enclosed space her character wakes up in and spends the entirety of her time in. As her character learns more throughout the film, Laurent’s performance takes the viewer with her on the journey. Her triumphs are ours. Her fears are ours. And, as she is left to contemplate her next steps, it is all too easy for us to imagine ourselves in her place. This is a testament not only to Laurent’s craft, which will hopefully garner more attention for the underrated actress, but also serves as a testament to Aja’s direction. Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre captures Laurent’s performance in its entirety, utilizing tight shots of her face throughout, which also contributes to the ease in which the viewer can be sucked in further by her performance. Alexandre also makes great use of angles to amplify the suspense and claustrophobic dread that the film requires.
Overall, OXYGEN is a must-see. Not only is it tension-ridden, but the story is such that it provides a bigger picture without needing to shove it down the viewer’s throat. The bigger picture, when it looms into focus, will be guaranteed to provoke much thought in the viewer long after the credits roll. With Mélanie Laurent’s performance, the viewer can’t help but be completely invested in the fate of her character. Within her fate resides hope, hope for the viewer, and then some as we’re taken on this journey. While some fans of Alexandre Aja might yearn for something less sci-fi-focused, there is plenty for horror fans to enjoy in its more frightening moments. Either way, this reviewer can’t recommend the film enough. Check it out when you get the chance.
The survival thriller will be released exclusively on Netflix tomorrow, May 12, 2021.
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