Though the global events of the past year have understandably thrust many a production into unadulterated chaos (and the mere acknowledgement of this reality has grown exceedingly tiresome), the French sci-fi thriller Oxygen was experiencing its own share of development troubles years before the spread of any virus. Dating all the way back to 2017, this film has undergone multiple massive overhauls to its cast and creative team. Both Anne Hathaway and Noomi Rapace were slated to occupy the lead role at various stages of pre-production; however, neither remained once principal photography began in July of 2020.
Mélanie Laurent headlines director Alexandre Aja‘s final product, and while the aforementioned actresses are undoubtedly capable and talented in their own right, it is difficult to conceive of anyone turning in a better performance than Laurent’s magnetic turn here. In Oxygen, she wakes up to find herself trapped in some sort of futuristic medical chamber. With no memory of her location or identity and no one around to aid her situation, she must fight her fugue state and come up with some way to escape the pod before her dwindling oxygen levels dissipate completely.
Like other entries in the “single-location” genre – films like Buried (2010) and Locke (2013) immediately spring to mind – Oxygen is an absolute showcase for its star. There is no supporting cast to steal the show. The spotlight is angled invariably in Laurent‘s direction at all times. Such a premise calls for a special performance, and Laurent answers the bell in spades. From the breathless opening minutes until the screen cuts to black for good, it’s hard not to be invested in her character’s helpless plight, to vicariously feel the suffocating weight of dread as each avenue of escape she explores fails to yield results. Laurent‘s uncompromising conviction and utter dedication to this character is evident in every single frame of Oxygen. And it’s due primarily to her efforts that this movie is able to be as effective as it is.
At 101 minutes, Aja‘s film stretches its claustrophobic premise as far as it can plausibly go without bursting at the seams, and Oxygen‘s narrative limitations become apparent down the stretch. While there are a number of admirable attempts to keep things interesting with twisty second-half revelations, this only affords the film so much leeway before it starts to run out of tricks. Once the blunt-force shock of the gripping first act has faded and the disorienting whirlwind of screenplay surprises has settled, the movie is decidedly less engaging.
Nevertheless, with Laurent leading the way, Oxygen charts a relatively strong course from start to finish. At its best, it’s a Hitchcockian edge-of-your-seater and a sturdy addition to Netflix‘s catalogue of original content.
sci-fi, Thriller | France, 2021 | 15 | Netflix Original | 12th May 2021 | Dir.Alexander Aja | Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi