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A suffocating thriller where oxygen is a dwindling but indispensable currency no doubt feels too soon. Being trapped in a single location hits way too close to home. So, a word of caution before you stream Netflix's thriller du jour. Filmed during lockdown, Alexandre Aja's Oxygen doubles down on the claustrophobia of our confined lives. If you've been getting acquainted with the four walls around you more than usual, there is some catharsis to find here. Aja tries to revive the flatlined buried-in-a-box concept with a defibrillator. But the obligatory big twist yet again proves to be a fatal miscalculation.
Aja, like he did in High Tension and Crawl, centres the story on a woman trying to survive a hellish nightmare. Bursting through a synthetic chrysalis, Liz (Mélanie Laurent) wakes up in a cryogenic chamber hooked up to tubes, wires and other medical paraphernalia.
Here's the rub: she can't get out, doesn't remember her name, where she is or how she got there. These first few minutes grab us by the throat. The disorientation from Liz's amnesia adds to the oppressive atmosphere of Oxygen. Speaking of which, the further rub — yes, there's more — is she's running out of oxygen. She has about till the end of the film's runtime to either get out of the chamber, or get help from outside.
With so many unknowns, that is easier said than done. Aja's intentions are clear from the opening and recurring image of a rat in a maze, which mirrors Liz's own plight. The knowns appear in fleeting but fractured memories of the past. These flashback sequences are the rare moments where the film gives us a glimpse of a world outside the chamber. Aja and his cinematographer Maxime Alexandre design an illusion that traps us in the chamber with Liz, shrinking the space further. In such stifling proximity, we come to empathise with her as she tosses and turns in increasing desperation. Within this narrow POV, the camera zigzags and bustles around like a rat.
Capturing the real-time tension of the clock running out and the walls closing in, the camera intensifies the horror of slow suffocation, squeezing the tension out of every moment.
The creative use of mise-en- scène is its gimmick after all. As the isolation and lack of oxygen induce hallucinations, what's real and what's imagined becomes harder to separate. All this anguish is rendered palpable in Laurent's face. Each gasp makes our hearts skip a beat. It's a one-woman show of grit that’s simultaneously harrowing and empowering.
Confinement has never been a hurdle to creativity. Tricky to pull off, yes. But thinking out-of-the-box has allowed plenty of filmmakers to flourish despite the economy in storytelling. Steven Knight managed just fine with Tom Hardy and a car in Locke. Karyn Kusama made a dinner party a tense affair in The Invitation. Oxygen can be boxed into the same category of single-location thrillers. Conceptually, it will remind you of Buried, and it does imbue a similar feeling of a noose tightening around our necks. Like it did for Ryan Reynolds in the Rodrigo Cortés thriller, survival depends on how Liz uses the tools available in her prison to break out of it. Only, Aja imagines it all through a sci-fi lens without his twisted ingenuity. Quel dommage.
Complicating the conceit is an onboard AI called MILO (short for Medical Interface Liaison Operator), voiced by Mathieu Amalric. The disembodied voice informs Liz on the oxygen remaining in the chamber. Protocol permitting, it politely helps Liz in every way it can. This includes bringing up her social media feed to making calls to those outside the chamber. As the oxygen drops, clues slowly trickle in through flashbacks. From here, it becomes a parlour game of deduction. Then comes the inevitable big reveal, as formula demands it. Not out of thin air. It is hinted at from the opening scene, but it's one that begs more questions than it answers.
In Liz's race against time is the unflinching force of the human spirit. There's some catharsis in Liz's trials, which make Oxygen a fitting companion in these trying times. Yet, despite how of the moment it feels, there's nothing fresh about a woman coming to terms with her mortality as she faces the most extreme of existential perils. That's the plot of every second survival thriller.
Oxygen is now streaming globally on Netflix.
Rating: 3 Quints out of 5
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