Since the shock and gore of his 2003 breakout High Tension ushered him into the Splat Pack, Alexandre Aja has taken an entertaining detour with rip-roaring excursions into creature horror, in the self-explanatory Piranha 3D and the gators-in-a-hurricane disaster movie, Crawl. The French genre specialist abandons that gleefully schlocky B-movie throwback spirit but not the taut storytelling skills in Oxygen, a claustrophobic sci-fi thriller driven by Mélanie Laurent’s gripping performance. She plays a woman who undergoes unscheduled cryogenic reanimation in a snug unit, with the clock running out on her life as she struggles to figure out who she is and how she got there.
The Netflix feature initially was set to star Anne Hathaway and then Noomi Rapace, with Franck Khalfoun directing, before Aja switched from the producer’s chair and brought in Laurent, reworking it as his first French-language project in almost 20 years. That rethink works in the movie’s favor, even if it’s ultimately more stylish than original.
Shot during lockdown and thematically reflective of the anxieties of prolonged isolation, it’s a compact operation. It features a single character in a single set that’s like a hi-tech coffin suspended in a void, with secondary characters represented only by their voices or in flashbacks. Most essential among them is Mathieu Amalric, who lends his velvety vocal authority to M.I.L.O., an artificial intelligence monitor that’s a more benign French version of 2001‘s HAL.
The script by Christie LeBlanc was a Black List entry that predates the COVID-19 pandemic. But like so many films conceived in The Before Time, it taps into the prevailing mood of those long months of confinement in unsettling ways. Netflix has urged critics not to reveal the discoveries that Laurent’s character, Elizabeth Hansen, makes about herself, nor the location of the cryogenic unit in which she regains consciousness and finds herself trapped. The latter element will be obvious to most audiences well in advance of its disclosure almost an hour into the movie. But that doesn’t diminish the suspense.
While cult followers of Aja’s extreme horror might be let down by his turn toward more measured sci-fi, there’s plenty of creepy unease packed into his execution of a simple scenario that grows increasingly complicated. What’s most impressive is the degree to which the tension is sustained. That’s largely due to Laurent’s highly emotive performance — interacting only with disembodied voices or with an amoeba-like circular cerebral activity monitor floating directly above her. But it’s also a credit to the dynamic camerawork of Maxime Alexandre, which explores seemingly limitless possibilities for unnerving new angles. Other invaluable atmospheric assists come from the needling synth score of French musician Robin Coudert, credited under his stage name, Rob, and the agitated editing rhythms of Stéphane Roche.
In the teasing out of what’s basically a single-gimmick plot into a satisfyingly robust chamber drama, there are obvious parallels to the 2010 Ryan Reynolds thriller, Buried. But in terms of physical control and tense storytelling in a solo show that approximates real time, I was reminded just as much of Tom Hardy’s fraught car journey in Steven Knight’s Locke, albeit with more elaborate design elements here.
Aja opens the movie with a rat in a maze, a disturbing image that recurs throughout in relation to elements of memory transfer, cloning and entrapment. Liz wakes up supine and in a panic, struggling to free herself from an organic cocoon along with restraining belts, IV feeds and a skull cap of electrodes. Answering only authorized questions, the calm but far from reassuring voice of Medical Interface Liaison Operator M.I.L.O. informs her of a system failure that has left her oxygen supply at 35 percent. The continuing drop of that level is shown on one of the many monitors around her.
While memory fragments of hospitals and science labs creep into the confused blur in her head, she learns from M.I.L.O. that there’s been no response to the medical failure report and that manufacturer authorization codes are required to open the pod. As the computer reveals her alarming life expectancy, it also offers her a sedative, bringing a welcome note of dry humor. In another sardonic touch, M.I.L.O. reminds her every time she tries to bust her way out that it’s a federal crime under European law to damage a cryogenic unit.
It’s 2 a.m., and external communications with the operations center are unavailable, but the captive manages through M.I.L.O. to connect with a police emergency line. This allows authorities to trace her name, through which she is then able to access relevant video files and social media history. She learns that she’s married to a Léo Ferguson (Malik Zidi). But contradictory information from a technology unit police division captain (Eric Herson-Macarel) leads Liz to suspect gaslighting.
LeBlanc’s propulsive script and Aja’s energized direction maintain the urgency of the ticking clock as Liz slowly assembles a more complete picture of her predicament, while simultaneously being led to question how much of her knowledge is the product of psychotic episodes and hallucinations induced by isolation.
Jolts of violence come via electric shocks triggered by Liz’s structural violations to the pod, and by M.I.L.O.’s attempts to override her refusal of a sedative. Those instances force her to battle an electronic arm wielding a syringe. A highlight of production designer Jean Rabasse’s detailed work, that particular technological menace recalls the legendary Alexander McQueen runway show in which robotic spray-paint nozzles moved in on terrified-looking model Shalom Harlow, defiling her minimalist white gown.
The narrative texture acquires additional shadings from the woman who designed the cryogenic unit (Anie Balestra), who runs into her own troubles during the course of their call, and from Liz’s elderly mother (Cathy Cerda), amplifying an emotional turn in the final scenes.
Even so, the story’s hold begins to slacken as more explicative chunks are revealed, with too few major surprises in a plot that often recalls Duncan Jones’ Moon, among other films. But there’s enough here to keep you engrossed, particularly once the camera pulls back in a majestic reveal of the environment surrounding the pod. The visual effects are slick, but the most indispensable effect is the human element of Laurent’s performance — by turns distraught, desperate, tough, determined and resourceful.
Production companies: Getaway Films, in association with Echo Lake Entertainment
Cast: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi, Laura Boujenah, Eric Herson-Macarel, Anie Balestra, Cathy Cerda
Director: Alexandre Aja
Screenwriter: Christie LeBlanc
Producers: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, Noémie Devide, Vincent Maraval, Brahim Chioua
Executive producers: James Engle, Adam Riback, Christie LeBlanc, Franck Khalfoun, Noomi Rapace, Laurence Clerc, Serge Catoire
Director of photography: Maxime Alexandre
Production designer: Jean Rabasse
Costume designer: Agnès Beziers
Editor: Stéphane Roche
Sound: Ken Yasumoto, François-Joseph Hors
Visual effects supervisor: Mac Guff Ligne
Special effects: Atelier 69
Casting: Julie Navarro