I can’t breathe…
…Those words have become synonymous with 2020 in more ways than one. The world watched as George Floyd was murdered by a cop, telling us he couldn’t breathe. Covid-19 ravaged nations, leaving many struggling for that last breath. And for the rest of us, it’s been a constant feeling of needing to come up for air yet being unable to reach the surface. All of this is to say, I don’t think any of us will have any trouble relating to Crawl director Alexandre Aja’s new movie, Oxygen.
Written by Christie LeBlanc (her debut feature), Oxygen tells the story of Liz (Melanie Laurent), who wakes up to find herself trapped in a cryogenic chamber with her oxygen quickly running out. With no recollection of who she is or how she got there, and her only source of information a mysterious computer system named M.I.L.O (voiced by Mathieu Amalric), Liz must use her wits to escape. But the lower her oxygen gets, the more she begins to hallucinate and lose trust in herself and her surroundings.
What follows is a claustrophobic, medical nightmare that forces audiences to be right there with Liz in real time as she fights to survive the worst hundred minutes of her life.
Like life itself, Oxygen throws us into the fire immediately, with Liz waking up, wrapped in a strange, stretchy fabric that she must break out of. She cherishes that first breath, still unaware of how much she’ll have to fight for the next, and the next. Liz’s situation is incredibly relatable, because it’s essentially a metaphor for life. From the moment we’re born--as Liz is in a way when she wakes—we are fighting to survive. Every breath we take is a miracle that we sometimes take for granted, and Oxygen is a film that reminds us how precious each breath truly is.
There to help remind us is a breathtaking performance from Laurent—sorry not sorry for the intentional pun—who is a powerhouse of emotion throughout the film. It’s difficult enough for an actor to carry a movie, more so when that actor is limited to a single space where they can hardly move, yet Laurent grips the task at hand and crushes it. Oxygen is as intimate of a film as it gets, and Laurent holds us close through her screams, cries, frustration, and in rare moments, hope, as she desperately attempts to figure out a way to survive. Outside of brief flashbacks and curious images firing through Liz’s mind--which unfortunately interrupt the pacing--Aja never lets us leave her side, forcing us to experience every ounce of pain and fleeting hope that she does, which can be an almost unbearably frustrating experience, because the more Liz learns, the more hopeless it all becomes.
Ultimately, that’s what Oxygen is: an experience. For better or worse, this is Aja’s attempt at extreme, minimalist filmmaking. If you’ve seen the Ryan Reynolds film Buried, then you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Oxygen. The two have similar setups and executions, with Oxygen putting a sci-fi twist on the trapped in tight quarters premise. Though, while Buried has a more Hitchcockian style, Aja and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre take a more intense approach to the narrative. Outside of a few jaw-dropping shots that display the utter loneliness of Liz, Aja uses every space of the high-tech coffin to tune us into Liz’s panic. Edges of the frame are fuzzy like wild eyes. The camera spins around the tube in dizzying circles. All of it aimed at disorienting the viewer.
Don’t worry though, Oxygen isn’t like some nauseating found footage film with the camera bouncing every which way. But it does create tension so thick you may find yourself forgetting to breathe.
With Liz having no idea who she is or how she arrived in this situation, and her only connection to the outside world a computer that keeps offering her a sedative as it casually reminds her that she will die soon, Oxygen is an exhilarating mystery that leads the audience down a twisty path, with plenty of surprises along the way. For as calm as MILO’s voice may be, “he” and the various voices which comes through calls that Liz manages to make are inherently untrustworthy, but so is Liz with her lack of air causing her to hallucinate. It’s impossible to know what’s real and what isn’t in Oxygen, and that’s part of the intrigue. The twists don’t always land, as clues occasionally give the close observer a little too much information, but knowing doesn’t lessen the impact of Liz’s discovery.
Some of you are probably wondering okay, but where do Aja’s more traditional, cringe-worthy horror moments come in? Well, I said this was a medical nightmare, and I meant it. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say MILO has some pretty terrifying methods of offering Liz that sedative. If you have a phobia of tight spaces or needles, Oxygen is your worst nightmare incarnate. While it’s not a major focus of the film, Aja employs bits of squirmy body horror here and there, with a few scares guaranteed to lift you out of your chair.
Oxygen cuts away to flashbacks a little too often to keep the tension going as consistently as it should, which results in it running a touch too long, and I don’t know that it’s exciting enough to warrant multiple re-watches once you know all the answers, but all in all, Oxygen is a fine film that brings us face to face with our own humanity and dares you to stay calm as it squeezes your nerves. After a year that has felt so traumatic and so unbearably suffocating, Oxygen reminds us all to breathe, because every breath could be our last. So cherish it.
Now, would you like a sedative?
Oxygen arrives on Netflix May 12th.
By Matt Konopka