Oxygene (French, 2021)
Updated: May 17
Mostly, a softening of Aja's chops as a genre director.
Currently, for Indians, the word oxygen is loaded with heartbreak and anger. As I write this review, thousands die outside because of sufficient oxygen not available for patients suffering from breathing-related complications due to Covid infection.
Aja hinges Elizabeth Hansen's (Melanie Laurent) predicament on the rapidly depleting oxygen. It is the 'time-bomb' that many screenwriting gurus advise high concept plots to include. Her situation is not short of problems, though -added to the fact that she is just left with 35% oxygen she does not remember who she is and how she ended up in this little pod.
Aja is a French director who has made his name directing thrillers that are nasty. It is this streak that made High Tension (2003), The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and Piranha 3D (2010) are great genre exercises. They stand out in the era where horror is mostly toothless and has been literally domesticated by the James Wan factory. Hence, anyone looking for any subversive meanness is bound to be disappointed here. And the film's playing in a confined place is not the only reason for that.
Rodrigo Cortes' Buried has a similar premise too. A U.S. truck driver in Iraq wakes up in a grave... That film drew its energy from the simplicity of its plot. There were twists, but they were carefully placed to allow us to catch up with Ryan Reynold's emotions. The film spent the entirety of its time inside the grave with Reynolds' acting and phone conversations only indication of the world outside.
But that was a thriller. Oxygen is a sci-fi and, perhaps, it is unfair to expect surroundings as austere as Buried's. One that this film shares with the other is a disdain for the corporate world. In Buried, the truck driver's employers are too willing to sacrifice him and here each time Elizabeth tries to physically take out her frustrations, MILO, the pod's AI system (voiced by Mathieu Almaric), warns that she could end up serving 10 years in federal prison. The film also seems to borrow heavily from others. Buried, we have already talked about but there are also elements from Gravity, Arrival etc.
Melanie Laurent is great and there are some superb moments here. The arm that wants to give Elizabeth a sedative is startling and recalls the only good scene from Ridley Scott's ridiculous Alien prequels: self-abortion by machine.
The existential frustration due to lack of information is well captured in the initial scenes by the director and Laurent. Her relief at being able to free some of her restraints is palpable. So is her confusion and fear. It is in the last half-an-hour or so that the film starts to develop some problems.
Aja decides to take a more sentimental route out of here. I am not going to reveal what happens but towards the end, the film's metaphor for birth, dealing with life and death come across as simplistic at best and pat, at worst.
Still, this is a thriller that keeps you gripped, at least during the majority of its minutes. I just sincerely hope that Aja does not see the days of his extreme nastiness as a mere phase.
Watch it here!