Saturday 14 August 2021

Movie Review: Oxygen (2021)

A science fiction confinement drama, Oxygen (or Oxygène in French) is a tense one-woman race-against-time survival mystery. The plot is constructed from familiar elements, but remains gripping.

A woman (Mélanie Laurent) wakes up in a medical cryogenic unit, tied down and connected to various intravenous tubes. She does not remember who she is or why she is there. The oxygen level is dropping, giving her a limited amount of time to live. The voice of the medical computer MILO (voiced by Mathieu Amalric), responsible for her health and safety, is her only companion, but the computer cannot unlock the unit without an administrator's code.

Through MILO's communication system she is eventually able to call the police, who are of limited help. After MILO provides access to archived records, she is able to identify herself as Dr. Elizabeth Hansen, and regains flashes of memories at a hospital, in a lab with experimental rats, and of her husband, Leo Ferguson. When she tries to phone Leo, an upset woman answers then breaks off communications, leaving Elizabeth alone again and running out of time.

In exploring the intersection of loneliness, disorientation and survival, Oxygen joins films like Buried, Moon, Gravity, Source Code and 127 Hours, where human resiliency traverses dark places on the path to self-awareness. Oxygen peels back its onion layer secrets in well-measured increments, the Christie LeBlanc script cleverly alternating new revelations with the progression of Elizabeth's turbulent mental state. 

And while LeBlanc borrows inspiration freely, she also keeps the Oxygen mix fresh, Elizabeth's discoveries often startling and on some occasions beautifully staged as one woman's plight expands towards a grand yet desperate quest for survival.

Director Alexandre Aja performs miracles by mounting an effective science thriller in one cramped chamber with his leading lady immobile and on her back, other than in a few dreamy flashback scenes. The interaction between Elizabeth and the generally supportive MILO provides most of the dialogue, plenty of frustration, and flashes of impish humour to counteract a few shocks involving rats, mind tricks, and a hyperactive syringe-equipped medical device.

Mélanie Laurent carries the drama in a magnificent performance, sequentially conveying panic, rationality, resourcefulness, shock, resignation, and finally problem-solving under extreme stress. Once she gets her bearings, this scientist will strive to overcome every impossible hurdle, to her last breath and beyond.

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