Still from the movie Oxygen

Photo by Shanna Besson/Netflix

Review: Oxygen offers expertly crafted single‑space suspense

After several years of cast and director changes, Christie LeBlanc’s script originally titled O2 that was on The Black List already in 2016 has finally made its way to the screen under the new title Oxygen, directed by Alexandre Aja. Anne Hathaway was originally cast in the lead role as Elizabeth Hansen, a woman that wakes up in a locked cryogenic sleep chamber without any recollection of how she got there. Noomi Rapace later replaced Hathaway, already versed in medical bays from the famous body horror surgery scene in Prometheus and her resourceful escape act in Rupture. Casting eventually settled on Mélanie Laurent, who perfectly captures the combination of confusion and determination that makes Elizabeth and Oxygen so intriguing.

Elizabeth finds herself in the company of one mere soul, the conversing computer MILO voiced by Mathieu Amalric, that offers at least some means of communication and investigation. What follows is essentially a human‑computer dialogue in which Elizabeth tries to make sense of her predicament. The wheres and whys quickly turn into a quest to answer a more fundamental question: who am I? While trying to overcome some of the technological obstacles in the tiny claustrophobic space she inhabits, this inquiry will turn out to hold critical information and potentially a way towards survival. That Elizabeth exhibits extraordinary reasoning skills is not a coincidence, we learn.

The only way to pull off a single‑space movie is to get the pacing right, doubly so if presented as a mystery. Many of the commonplace techniques to manipulate time and steer attention are unavailable. Every slow passage twice as slow, every intentionally subtle detail twice examined. The right pieces have to fall into place at the right time for both the audience and the characters. This is done to a T in Oxygen largely thanks to LeBlanc’s expertly crafted screenplay that Laurent navigates masterfully. At no point does it seem like Elizabeth has figured something out long before or after ourselves as the audience. From her initial realisation that oxygen is running out, through a series of revelations, one more mindboggling than the other. Without giving anything away, you also have to admire her relatively calm and problem‑solving mind in the face of some pretty shocking insights.

Oxygen is a small movie by physical dimensions, but its ideas are enormous. Most attention is paid to the suspense, which is top of the class, but underneath we find several decidedly transhumanist ideas. One idea of that kind usually suffices to build an entire movie around, but for some reason, such idea‑driven indie sci‑fi films often fall flat. Maybe because they are too keen on the theory and forget there also needs to be a compelling story. Oxygen is, on the other hand, first and foremost a dramatic survival mystery with twists and turns, with the science fiction presented as a logical conclusion. Such priorities allow Oxygen to effortlessly introduce some of the most fascinating scientific concepts seen on the screen in recent years, without ever feeling heavy or overly cerebral.

Oxygen premieres on Netflix on May 12, 2021.

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