“Oxygen” is a riveting sci-fi thriller that packs a big emotional impact in its confined space.
There is a moment, a little over an hour into “Oxygen,” when the protagonist, Liz (Mélanie Laurent) manages to call her mother. The call suffers from a bad connection — the latest in a long list of frustrations and failures Liz has endured. Liz breaks down sobbing and the camera pulls away, giving the audience a complete view of the small, suffocating chamber she’s trapped in. Around the chamber is nothing but darkness. The shot underscores the terror of the protagonist’s situation. She is trapped alone in an unknown location, and time is running out.
The latest entry in the person-stuck-in-a-box genre (see: “Buried” (2010), “Brake” (2012)), “Oxygen” has a simple premise: a young woman wakes up in a cryogenic chamber and discovers that her oxygen supply is dangerously low. Her only hope of survival is to remember who she is and how she got there. In the process, she must figure out a way to restore her dwindling supply of oxygen. The mandatory non-human companion for any science fiction film comes in the form of MILO, a personable, if unhelpful, voice that represents the control hub of the cryogenic chamber. By deciphering the proper commands, Liz can use MILO to manipulate the chamber and uncover information about her identity.
Laurent delivers a compelling performance as the terrified Liz, made all the more impressive by the limitations the cryogenics chamber imposes on her movements. For most of the film, she is lying on her back, only able to turn her head and reach around the chamber. Yet Laurent commands attention with miniscule changes in expression, seamlessly alternating between quiet despair and frantic attempts at escape. Even when plot developments cast doubt on her character’s ethics, she is never made so unredeemable that the audience does not care about her escape.
During her time in the chamber, Liz calls the police, her mother, and others; pulls up news articles about her scientific achievements; and watches videos of her pre-chamber life with the help of MILO. But there are no easy answers to how she got there. As she uncovers more of her haunting past — and as her oxygen levels reach dangerous lows — Liz becomes increasingly aware that she cannot trust what others tell her, or even her own memories. What she can recall is shown in powerful vignettes. A marriage strained by her partner’s illness. Her lauded career as a controversial biologist. Humanity being ravaged by a deadly virus. These fragments of Liz’s past are conveyed through mostly dialogue-free shots, spliced in blink-or-you’ll-miss-it fashion between scenes of her suffering in the chamber.
The film’s major themes of isolation, the struggle to communicate, and the ethical gray areas of scientific advancement are especially relevant to a 2021 audience. Without spoiling too much, the question of what humanity would do to perpetuate itself receives a complex answer. “Oxygen” begs the viewer to consider the ethics of survival when it comes at the cost of human life. It’s one of many dilemmas posed by the film, which elevates itself above other thrillers by giving Liz increasingly difficult choices as the plot progresses. Liz must decide what is vital to her quality of life, and what can be discarded.
“Oxygen” is about one woman fighting for her life. As such, the miniature triumphs of any great survivalist movie are present. When Liz successfully breaks a machine arm trying to sedate her, the audience cheers on her small victory. It’s like watching Matt Damon grow potatoes in “The Martian,” or Tom Hanks wrench out a rotten tooth in “Castaway.” There’s something special about watching characters in the worst circumstances plug away, driven by evolutionary instinct, or love, or hope, or spite. Liz is trapped alone in an unknown location, and time is running out. But somehow, she will find a way to live.
Director: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Mélanie Laurent
Release Date: May 12, 2021
Image courtesy of The Indian Express.