Oxygen’s high concept unfortunately hampers Aja’s ability to impress much on either a visual or narrative level.
Seriously erratic genre auteur Alexandre Aja is back. Responsible for shockers both grippingly stupid (Haute Tension), admirably stripped-down (Crawl), and absolutely worthless (Piranha 3D), he’s so irrepressibly inconsistent that every new release is grounds for anticipation. His latest, straight-to-Netflix sci-fi locked-room thriller Oxygen, is about as down-the-middle as they come.
Mélanie Laurent plays a woman eventually named as Elizabeth Hansen, who awakens in a cramped cryotube, allegedly hurtling through space, with no memory of who she is or how she got there. Even worse, as cryotube computer MILO (voiced by Mathieu Amalric) informs her, she’s going to run out of air pretty soon, which means curtains. Speaking as someone who’s never been an amnesiac locked in a space-borne cryotube, I think it’s weird that Elizabeth spends so much time figuring out who she is and what she’s doing there rather than solving the oxygen problem, but if she didn’t, then we wouldn’t have much of a movie, now would we?
Aja is a gifted stylist with a welcome predilection for cheap thrills. Crawl, similarly about a capable woman trapped in an almost certainly fatal situation, was peppered with surprises and reversals. Oxygen, conversely, doesn’t have the space (pun intended) to make any such maneuvers, since it is completely set in a confined space the size of a large coffin and there’s nowhere else for it to go. We are in a waiting game; specifically, waiting for the key piece of exposition that will alert our heroine to her true circumstances. But that’s not particularly exciting cinema. We’re stuck in this blandly expository loop, double-checking every piece of dialogue or narrative event for evidence of the future twist that will explain what’s really going on here. It’s a my problem and not a your problem that this reviewer pretty much figured out the gag within a few minutes of the open.
Aja does his best to keep things visually lively, but there’s only so much you can do given the confined space. The whole thing reminds of the possibly apocryphal story of Michael Bay in a pitch meeting for Larry Cohen’s long-in-development screenplay for Phone Booth, in which he reportedly asked, and not necessarily incorrectly, “How do we get this thing out of the fucking phone booth?” It doesn’t help that the production design is that of the sterile, generic grey/white, space/medical variety. A bunch of 360-degree pans and rapid cuts between shots of computer readouts can only break up the narrative monotony so much. Laurent, whose huge, expressive eyes are doing nearly all of the heavy lifting here, is trying so hard, but those peepers just can’t compete with the narrative stagnation. Even her frequent battles with a recalcitrant robot drug injector needle feel cheap and stale. There’s no real problem solving, there’s no real anxiety, and there’s certainly nothing here you haven’t seen elsewhere.
You can stream Alexandre Aja’s Oxygen on Netflix beginning on May 12.