Though painfully unremarkable, the title for Alexandre Aja’s new film works. That is, at least, as a portent to the dissipation of something that already the film lacks in supply. I mean that as both a praise and a slight jab. Oxygen, after all, is the type of isolation thriller that, however taut, has the tendency to stifle its more interesting inquiries.
Let’s start with what’s good. The film, running for approximately a hundred minutes, is an expert showcase of Aja’s hold on tension. That’s no surprise. His filmography is as dank as a patch of forest soil, on which lays immaculate his ability to hold suspense and deliver thrills, like a trail of breadcrumbs. A map of some sort that thankfully implies a way out of the woods, and that his films aren’t just aimless treks in the seedier parts of the genre.
The logline is simple, yet intriguing. Awaking from her cryo-slumber, an amnesiac woman (Mélanie Laurent) finds herself in a sleeping pod. Understandably fraught, she confronts the onboard A.I. system, named MILO (voiced Mathieu Amalric), demanding the cryo-pod be unlocked. “I cannot satisfy that request,” explains her Medical Interface Liaison Operator. With nary any adequate space nor enough time, the woman—or Liz, as she comes to learn at some point in the film—must unpack the mystery of her circumstance if she’s to outlast the dwindling oxygen levels in her pod.
Films like Oxygen—think Buried, starring Ryan Reynolds—are anchored on its central (and often, only) on-screen performance, and here, Laurent is great, giving Liz a sort of blanket distress that hits hard, especially when it has to do with our collective fear of the unknown. Aja, meanwhile, leans on his ability as a genre filmmaker. Shudder-inducing moments come in ample supply, from having to fend off a robotic arm with euthanizing chemicals to shaking off visions of mischief of lab rats out to gnaw at your flesh.
The film’s deepest scare, however, comes towards the end. And it’s here that the film kind of chokes. Faced with an incredible revelation, one that’s bigger than the claustrophobic pod in which she remains fastened, and greater than her own existence, the film decides to breeze past its thought-provoking questions. At which point do we question the ethics of self-preservation? When do our consciousness and existence end, and where, if at all, do they intersect?
Oxygen poses these questions but seems unconcerned with the answers. In a certain light, I can empathize with the film’s apparent desire to figure out the answers to questions with greater immediacy. We are, after all, living through a global pandemic, and have barely the headspace for such existential queries. The film, interestingly, feels very much like a COVID-19 story, having been produced during the pandemic, and the milieu pretty much seeping into the story.
That said, it’s as gravely important to ponder on these questions. And I wish that the film made space for it somewhere in its otherwise beguiling story about preservation and existentialism. Even after we’ve come out of the woods with this pandemic, a gargantuan threat remains, looming large and doting about our outstayed welcome on Earth. And like Liz in this film, we literally and figuratively haven’t got that much air.