Film Review: ‘Oxygen’

Directed and Produced by Alexandre Aja

Starring: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric and Malik Zidi

Original Release Date: May 2021

Review by Miriam Atkinson

Oxygen or Oxygène to give the film its French title is a French/American science fiction psychological thriller. Elizabeth Hansen (Mélanie Laurent) awakens in a medical cryogenic pod; trapped, rapidly running out of air, and with no idea who she is or how she ended up in the pod. Elizabeth has only two hours to either fix or escape her prison before she suffocates. She is hindered by the fact that everyone she speaks to through the pod’s communication system seems to be keeping secrets from her.

I was pleased when the film wasted no time and immediately plunged into the story; beginning the moment Elizabeth awakens. For the first several minutes there is no dialogue. The only sounds are the beeps of the pod and Elizabeth’s panicked breathing as she adjusts to being trapped in a confined space. This tense, alarm-filled opening perfectly set the scene for what would come.

Mélanie Laurent is utterly fantastic in this film and completely sells every moment she is on screen. With the majority of Oxygen dependant on her, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to act by herself and believably convey such a range a heightened emotions especially without another person to interact face-to-face with.

Oxygen visually echoes Elizabeth’s predicament with its deliberately claustrophobic scenes. The interior shots of Elizabeth in the pod show the viewer just that – only the interior. While multiple angles are used throughout the film, we are only allowed to see what the protagonist can see (with the exception of the occasional shot where we get a glimpse at some of the machinery within the walls of the pod). The viewer is only allowed to see what is outside the pod when Elizabeth too can see the exterior for the first time.

But this is not the only way Oxygen places the viewer into the position of the protagonist.

A crucial plot point is the fact that Elizabeth has amnesia, with her memory slowly returning throughout the film which is shown through a series of flashbacks. Here she gets glimpses of her husband Leo (Malik Zidi) and a series of strange medical experiments. While admittedly amnesia is not the most original plot device, in some ways it does make Oxygen feel like a detective film as Elizabeth must gradually piece together what is happening to her. As a result she and the viewer learn information at the same time – allowing us to experience this rollercoaster of a journey together. Like her we must form our own opinions about whom, if anyone, to trust.

Original image from netflix.com

I found it interesting that, as a result of the amnesia, for much of the film we are left unsure as to whether or not Elizabeth is a reliable witness to the events that unfold. Due to the lack of oxygen there is a scene where Elizabeth looses consciousness and track of time. After we are informed that oxygen deprivation can cause hallucinations, the viewer is left in doubt about whether anything that Elizabeth has experienced inside the pod is real. I formed many different opinions and theories before the truth was finally revealed. I found it very entertaining to try and piece together what was happening and I am sure that everyone who watches Oxygen for the first time will have fun forming their own theories.

As for its antagonist, the film has several options. The people Elizabeth speaks to through the communications systems could be classed as antagonists – certainly they seem to obstruct Elizabeth’s attempts to find out the truth. Time itself could also be classed as the film’s antagonist, for if Elizabeth does not beat the ticking clock she will suffocate.

The cryogenic pod also works as an antagonist. The highly advanced pod is controlled by an artificial intelligence known as M.I.L.O – Medical Interface Liaison Officer, (voiced by Mathieu Amalric). M.I.L.O’s function is to save the occupant of the pod and make them as comfortable as possible. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, upon detecting her condition, M.I.L.O concludes that a quick death would be kinder than the slow death she currently faces. Some of my favourite scenes were where Elizabeth had to quickly use what strength and mental capabilities that still remained to her to fight and outwit the automated systems.

Falling into the genres of sci-fi and horror, I think it’s fair to say that Oxygen is not a film that everyone will enjoy. As I’ve stated some aspects of the plot, like the amnesia, have been done before but nevertheless I enjoyed it. The acting and the cinematography were excellent and I was pleased that the film managed to maintain a tense, suspenseful atmosphere throughout. I suspect that Oxygen is one of those films where the first time you watch it is the best time because you don’t know what is happening or going to happen. Oxygen entertained me, made me think, and held my attention throughout.

WARNING: Oxygen contains mild gore and if you don’t like needles then there are several scenes where you may want to look away.


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