Oxygen (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A taut claustrophobic SF thriller starring Mélanie Laurent

Netflix film “Oxygen”, which was released in last week, is a taut claustrophobic science fiction thriller which is solely driven by one simple premise. While you may notice some plot holes and contrivances after it is over, the movie will grab your attention from the beginning to the end, and it is also supported well by the terrific lead performance at its center.

At the beginning, the movie quickly establishes an urgent mysterious circumstance surrounding its heroine played by Mélanie Laurent, a wonderful French actress who has been more prominent since her notable supporting turn in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009). When she is suddenly awakened, she is baffled to find herself inside some state-of-the-art cryogenic unit, and she has no idea on how the hell she came to end up being there, while also not being able to remember much about her life and identity.

She naturally tries to get out of the unit, but it soon becomes quite evident to her that the unit is heavily locked and sealed, and M.I.L.O. (voiced by Mathieu Amalric), an artificial intelligence controlling everything inside the unit, is not so helpful to say the least. While clearly notifying to her that the unit is under emergency due to the decreasing level of oxygen caused by an unspecified factor, M.I.L.O keeps preventing her from getting any chance of unsealing the unit because, well, it simply follows its programmed protocols.

At least, M.I.L.O. allows her to contact with the outside world. When she calls a police station, an officer who receives her call does not believe her at first, but it does not much time for this officer to realize how desperate she is, and she gives him any piece of information she can get from her very tight place right now. For example, she quickly finds the serial number of the unit, and that may help the officer and others to locate where she is trapped at present.

In addition, she gradually gathers several pieces of information on her life and identity, which she still vaguely remembers without much conviction. According to the database search assisted by M.I.L.O., she discovers that she was associated with some highly advanced cryogenic technology project, and it becomes quite apparent to her that she must remember more as much as she can for getting more clues for her survival.

While it surely reminds me of several other similar thriller flicks including “Buried” (2010), the movie deftly rolls its story promise from one tense moment to another as firmly sticking to its setup. Except a series of brief scenes showing her memories, the movie mostly stays close to its heroine, and we come to care more about her ongoing plight while wondering about its several questionable aspects. As the oxygen level is decreased bit by bit, she becomes more desperate, but that officer still seems to be searching for her location without much progress, and she soon comes to suspect that there is something important which has been hidden from her from the very beginning.

While constantly making us focus more on the growing mysteries surrounding its heroine’s increasingly perilous circumstance, the screenplay by Christie LeBlanc also slowly builds some human poignancy along the plot. As she tries to remember more and more, the memories of her life somehow come back to her piece by piece, and she later becomes emotionally overwhelmed by the sad memories involved with a certain figure in her life.

Although the movie loses its narrative momentum to some degree during those brief flashback scenes, it still remains tense and suspenseful thanks to the skillful direction of director Alexandre Aja, who previously thrilled and entertained me enough with those big lethal alligators in “Crawl” (2019). Like that little but competent horror thriller film, “Oxygen” is also willing to go along with many preposterous story elements as much as it can, and Aja and his crew members including cinematographer Maxime Alexandre and editor Hervé Schneid did a commendable job of maintaining the level of tension on the screen. It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that our heroine eventually comes to learn the truth behind her plight, but that crucial moment is delivered with considerable dramatic impact, and we accordingly come to look back on the whole plot and a number of small foreshadowings sprinkled throughout it.

Most of all, the movie depends a lot on its lead performer’s presence and talent, and Laurent’ strong performance is absolutely compelling to say the least. While quite convincing in her character’s trapped status, Laurent never makes any misstep in her character’s dynamic emotional development along the plot, and she is also complemented well by a small group of voice performers in the film including Mathieu Amalric, whose plainly officious voice performance is alternatively assuring and threatening as certainly taking us back to HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).

Overall, “Oxygen” may not bring fresh air into its genre territory, but it is well-executed enough to hold my interest during its 100-minute running time, and it surely reminds me again of my longtime dread on being stuck inside tight place. I exactly knew what I was going to get, but it impressed me much even while not exceeding my expectation, and that is enough for my recommendation.

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