Movie Review: “Oxygen” (2021)

You have, almost certainly, tried talking to a computer and the odds are pretty good that it didn’t go as smoothly as you wanted. Picture it, in making a phone call to a company, rather than getting a human being, a computer answered. At that point, the stupid machine may have suggested that it could understand full words and sentences, but it didn’t really, at least it didn’t interpret your words as you meant them. Soon enough, you found yourself yelling at the thing, and until you used the exact right words in the exact right sequence, the computer would not/could not offer up the information you needed (maybe it didn’t even at that point).

Okay, now imagine going through that but in a life or death situation. Imagine waking up and having absolutely no information about where you are or what’s going on. Imagine not even being able to remember your own name. The only thing that responds when you speak is a computer and as much as it, technically, is able to answer your questions, if you don’t know enough to ask the right thing, you’re in deep trouble. This is the exact scenario in which we find Mélanie Laurent’s character in Alexandre Aja’s “Oxygen.”

Written by Christie LeBlanc, this new Netflix film throws the audience immediately into this horrific struggle as Laurent’s character wakes up in an enclosed space with an IV in her arm and no idea what’s going on. She comes to realize that she’s in a cryogenic pod and that the pod is running low on oxygen. Not knowing why she’s there and only getting flashes of memories that aren’t necessarily useful, her only companion is M.I.L.O. (Mathieu Amalric), a computer that responds to her queries but not always in helpful fashion.

It is easy to imagine that a movie could lose its way in this scenario, that filmmakers could setup the entire thing and then discard it just as quickly when it proves impossible to sustain the idea for a feature length work. That is not the case here. “Oxygen” very much embraces its limitations and, as things come into focus for both our heroine and the audience, it only gets better.

Aja keeps his camera right there with Laurent as we watch her character slowly process all the new bits of information as they come in. Despite the enclosed nature of the space, Aja and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre seem to continually be able to find new angles and perspectives to offer. The visuals, despite the small nature of the pod, are wholly engrossing, keeping us there just as much as Laurent.

To be sure, Laurent is phenomenal in the role. We can see the gears turning as the poor person inside this pod fights back the horror of her situation and attempts to save her own life, even if she doesn’t know how to proceed. Over and over again we watch as she has to try to calm herself to preserve all the oxygen she can and we wonder if this will be the time that she can’t stop her heart from racing, that she can’t slow down her breathing. Naturally, M.I.L.O. “helpfully” chirps in at such moments with suggestions or advice, making the situation that much more difficult. It is a thing of beauty, horrific beauty unquestionably, beauty nonetheless.

I am, quite purposefully, being relatively obtuse in how I talk about the film. In part this is because the screener came with strict instructions to not reveal too much and in part it’s because it would be cruel to give anything away.

There are mysteries that are simply not worth the effort, movies that sucker you in and make you think you’re going to see something worthwhile only to find yourself more and more disappointed with every single reveal. “Oxygen” is not such a film. Instead it is one that only draws you in further every time you think you’ve learned anything about what is taking place. It is a movie where you can start to make out the rough outlines, but where the details remain hazy until the curtain is finally, fully, drawn back.

Watching such a movie is a pleasure. It isn’t just thrilling storytelling, it is deftly acted and perfectly presented. It is this small, enclosed, finite thing that grabs you from the opening moments and simply does not let go. Maybe, if you could figure out exactly what to say to M.I.L.O., he’d stop the whole thing, explain it, and free you, but the truth is, you will not want that to happen. Once you start “Oxygen,” you’ll keep watching until the very last gasp.

photo credit: Netflix

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