There is something abjectly masochistic in watching and pulling for someone who is confronting their doom for an hour and a half. In an era when so many have been taken before their time by violence or by a virus, to gaze upon a microcosm of collective global isolation and cosmic uncertainty is an exercise in self-flagellation. It’s fitting, then, that the heroine of Alexandre Aja’s Oxygen depends on her own suffering for survival. What comes of that festival of misery is precarious and by the skin of the teeth, the very prognosis that the dawn of the 2020s brings.
Some of Oxygen’s relevance, to be sure, is tragic coincidence; Christie LeBlanc’s screenplay, which features a global pandemic as a narrative jump-off (and possibly, but unlikely, 80s video game Suspended as another), made the rounds and landed on The Black List back in 2016, years before a virus that makes breathing fatally difficult prompted the world to go into hibernation. Aja’s adaptation (the director’s first French-language feature since Haute Tension) was, however, shot in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and succeeds in transmitting the rapid, anxious pulse of the time onto the big screen for metaphorical posterity.
Oxygen’s opening is veritably heart-pounding; the urgent chirps of a heart rate monitor sets the pace and starts the story off at a brisk jog. As the tagline forewarns, “No escape. No memory. 90 minutes to live.” An unnamed woman, played by Mélanie Laurent, awakens in a pristine enclosed vessel with enough room for herself and an assortment of tubes and electrodes. An alarm sounds, a light flashes. Oxygen level: 33 percent. As she claws and squirms her way out of the honeycombed membrane she’s cocooned in, the whole sequence resembles a birth, as Neo becomes unplugged from the Matrix. Born in fear and restraint, the woman has about 90 minutes to discern who she is, where she is and how to stay alive before her air runs out.
At this point and with LeBlanc’s assist, it’s safe to say that Aja is a sadist towards the players on his stage. From the torturously prolonged cannibal attack on a family in The Hills Have Eyes reboot to the gnarly gator siege of 2019’s Crawl right down to pulled IV catheters and self-electrocution seen here, every inch of wound and worry will be recorded on the various pristine monitors that surround Laurent’s character, making an exhibition of both her external and internal agonies. At no point does this get salacious — in fact, a nifty narrative device uses the woman’s pain to trigger her memories in fleeting images. A quaking needle poke to the palm triggers the first significant memory, and white-knuckled manipulation of the wound conjures up more: a bedroom embrace, a young girl at a party, an ocean seaside, white lab rats. Each fleeting visual is a piece of the puzzle which, once solved, hopefully leads to her survival. The woman’s only companion is the deep-voiced, monotone MILO (voiced by Mathieu Amalric), a faceless Medical Interface Liaison Operator neither as fluffy as Baymax nor as sinister as HAL. Only able to answer the woman’s specific questions as a modern-day AI reasonably could, MILO gives the good doctor the tools for survival — but only if she knows what to ask — and the O2 percentage drops as the Jeopardy music goes on.
Single-setting thrillers can be tricky to navigate, as the story must anticipate how its audience would likely respond to each catalyst, balance that with staying true to how the character would respond and keep the viewer captive the whole time. Alfred Hitchcock once likened it to showing an audience a bomb placed under a table and giving them time to anticipate its detonation as the characters in the room mill about. Oxygen begins with the bomb (or air supply) ticking away, and successfully keeps the haute tension for the rest of the 100-minute runtime. Tag-teaming with longtime collaborator and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (no stranger to shooting in dicey, cramped spaces), the French filmmaker makes the most of the confinement: for example, the second act begins with a light reprieve when the lady reaches down to unbuckle her legs and prop herself up on her elbows, allowing Alexandre’s lens to observe her potential coffin from a fresh angle. It’s nothing fancy, but it keeps the candle wax burning as the struggle unfolds.
Threats to the woman emerge from faulty communication, forced medical protocols and escape attempts, and the rest is filled with the sort of information dumps that are a byproduct of contained genre pictures like this or Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried. Much like truck driver Paul Conroy and his cell phone lifeline with dwindling battery, the woman in Aja’s tale gets only some information from her own memory, deftly interwoven in the editing room by Stéphane Roche. Most of it, for both, comes from disembodied voices, otherwise this would be a very quiet picture with the occasional grunt or scream. These dumps begin to feel clunky after a while, but the information goods they bring are bountiful, each one a mini-climax that builds to an existential whopper. This magnificent reveal is saved for the eye to behold rather than for the ear to hear, and without saying too much here, it delivers a visual payload that is the most stunning of the film entire, and a well-placed scare puts a cherry on top. It’s also where Rob’s magnificent, grand choral score shines brightest, no surprise to horror fans who have long cowered from his compositions in Gretel & Hansel, Maniac (2012) and Aja’s own adaptation of Joe Hill’s Horns.
As the encased woman, Laurent presents a natural evolution of the sci-fi damsel, now better equipped to get herself out of her own predicament. Bathed in the pulsating fiery glow of the pod’s emergency light and with wires sprouting from her head, the woman’s first silhouette suggests that of the titanium Maschinenmensch of Metropolis. The Inglourious Basterds star can only bring so much physicality to a role that requires her to lay supine, but she utilizes every inch of the frame and serves her inner thoughts on a platter with blood, sweat and tears. From wails of anguish to twitchy glances at the monitors to deflated acceptance of her situation, Laurent handles the trust placed in her with care, holds the frame with ease, and the result is both raw and awe-inspiring.
With his latest, Aja plays an enthralling, feature-length riff on one’s life flashing before their eyes as death approaches. Oxygen’s relevance strikes like lightning in a year when time is measured less by Earth’s tilt and more by first wave, second wave, red phase, yellow phase; not by time passing daily, but by how much danger remains in the room. Far from exploiting the distress and grief felt by many in recent years, Oxygen emerges in the COVID-19 era as a harrowing deathbed mystery that does what sci-fi horror is most effective at doing: exploring the micro within the macro — and from that, extrapolating on who we are and who we can be, for better or worse.
Anya Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a horror-centric columnist and film critic. Her work can be seen in Fangoria Magazine, Rue Morgue, Dread Central and Birth.Movies.Death as well as her website anyawrites.com.