Oxygen – or Oxygène, to give this French-language Netflix movie its original title – is a puzzle-box sci-fi thriller that finds an amnesiac woman (Inglourious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent) awaking in a cramped cryogenic chamber with no memory of how she got there, or even who she even is.
It’s a compelling elevator pitch that recalls Ryan Reynolds’ trapped-in-a-box antics in 2010’s Buried. Where Reynolds’ Iraq-based contractor had a mobile phone to keep him company in his coffin-like enclosure, Laurent’s Elizabeth Hansen – as she soon discovers she’s called – has an AI assistant (voiced by Mathieu Almaric) to bounce off.
While the (mostly) single-location set-up must’ve been a boon for pandemic shooting, it doesn’t feel like the film’s hand has been forced by shooting restrictions. Director Alexandre Aja occasionally takes us outside the pod as Liz begins to piece together her past through various clues: at times the film can feel a bit like watching someone else crack an escape room.
There’s a ticking clock to ratchet the tension. Liz’s oxygen supply is limited to approximately feature-length (less if her breathing’s panicky), compounding the claustrophobia. Jean Rebasse’s production design has a clean simplicity that still manages to feel unwelcoming, although you occasionally feel that the cryo-pod could’ve been a /little/ more restrictive: it’s at its most viscerally uncomfortable when attempting unwanted medical procedures. There’s one slow zoom out, though, that does effectively frame Liz’s confines against darkness above and below that’ll have you gasping for air.
The concept requires a strong lead and Laurent is more than up for the task, as convincing in Liz’s distress as she is with her resourcefulness. Almaric’s soothing tones make for a welcome foil: his MILO (medical interface liaison officer) is able to confer crucial clues, as well as acting as a web browser to the outside world.
With films in this subgenre, it’s always harder to nail the landing than the set-up, and Oxygen’s denouement manages to avoid disappointing without thoroughly satisfying either, intriguing but not quite hitting the emotional notes it seems to be aiming for. Some slightly iffy make-up in flashback scenes doesn’t exactly help.
As much as the premise pulls you along in the moment, it doesn’t leave you with anything that’ll particularly linger. Perhaps because you’re watching someone else solve a mystery that you’re at a remove from and can’t possibly crack yourself, or perhaps because the revelations feel more conveniently dispensed than organic, but it never feels more than the sum of its parts. At its best as an experiential ride, its high points are ultimately hemmed in.
Oxygen is available now on Netflix. For more, check out the best Netflix movies out now.