If you decide to watch the new sci-fi horror offering Oxygen during your latest Netflix and chill, allow me to impart a word of caution: This film isn’t what you think it is. Alexandre Aja, the acclaimed New French Extremism director responsible for the subgenre’s classic Haute Tension, is known for just that: Extremism. He’s no stranger to pushing his characters into heightened, blood-curdling scenarios where the very fabric of their beings dangle at impossibly high stakes. But where Oxygen differs from the rest of his work is that, ultimately, it is a love letter to human survival—a horrorshow with catharsis running through its veins.
A woman (Mélanie Laurent), awakens in a cryogenic chamber with no memory of her identity or how she got there. M.I.L.O. (Mathieu Amalric), the pod’s onboard computer system, informs her that she has only 33 percent left in her oxygen reserve. We only see the inside of this pod, making her true location a terrifying unknown. Needless to say, escape couldn’t be more critical.
When you set a film in a single location, you drastically limit the playable elements your film has to work with. In turn, this movie is forced to use its script, written like a space-age Agatha Christie novel by Christie LeBlanc, to give us everything: The exposition, the clues, the emotion. Single-location stories can be tricky in this way, especially when “show, don’t tell” is part of every filmmaker’s bible. But pairing the limited visual of a coffin-like structure packed with puzzling buttons and her own prone body strapped to a million different wirings—as mysterious to us as it is to Laurent’s character—with a tight script full of mysteries and shocking answers makes up for the lack of location changes, costumes and hell, even other human characters.
The few others in this film serve very specific purposes in the woman’s quest to get answers about herself and her situation before time runs out. As those people are introduced, short tidbits of disjointed flashbacks (yet to be placed in a timeline) follow suit. We’re constantly doing the mental gymnastics alongside Laurent based on these introductions, but the film does an excellent job of keeping the truth just far enough at bay. Until the time is right, of course—and when the big reveals hit, they hit hard.
To give away what Laurent’s character learns about herself, her circumstances and the world at large would be doing this movie a huge disservice, but I can say that you will gasp. You will feel deep anguish, existential dread, outpouring love, innate empathy and many other visceral emotions. You will, desperately, want to save her. Oxygen and Laurent’s performance rely on how human nature manifests in us all: With a desire to live, no matter the cost.
And none of what is achieved in this claustrophobic mystery would be possible without Laurent. The deep humanity that seeps through every crack in this film is made up entirely of her brilliance. The breadth of emotion she fills the small space with is immense and it peppers every shot. In order for the script to work, for the single location to stay fresh, the lead’s performance is pretty much the last puzzle piece. It isn’t an understatement to say the Inglourious Basterds star really carries this movie on her back. When she rose to American fame in Quentin Tarantino’s World War II revisionist tale, she had an incredible cast to bounce off of, so much so that the other storylines felt equally as rich as her own. It was a nice web that she and her castmates joined hands to create. There’s no denying she stole the show in several monumental moments—but Oxygen is her show, and her performance refuses to give up its grip on your throat until its final seconds. Laurent made a near masterclass of her emotional control in Basterds; she perfects that ability here.
Yes, some of Aja’s other work does hit similar marks: The plight of Aja’s Crawl—a headstrong, determined heroine up against a villain she must tame, in her way, in order to best it—isn’t all that different, but I’d still argue that it isn’t quite the love letter Oxygen is. Crawl’s lead, played with ferocious intent by Kaya Scodelario, saves herself and her father, but the stakes of that film remain small in comparison to this one. After all, Laurent’s character’s struggle is altogether both existential and hyper-real, forcing her to solve her life’s biggest mystery and most dire circumstance in 102 minutes. Her sharp mind and will to survive meet in the middle to push on, to try everything she can, to propel herself to the edge of humanity—to bring us all to the brink and back again, with her. Ultimately, there’s little more thrilling, or more hopeful, than that.
Director: Alexandre Aja
Writers: Christie LeBlanc
Stars: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi
Release Date: May 12, 2021 (Netflix)
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer with bylines at Life & Style, In Touch Weekly, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. She spends too much time thinking about One Direction and the leftover moments writing poetry, fiction and screenplays. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET only on KPISSFM. She tweets @nikonamerica.