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FILMS / REVIEWS France / USA

Review: Oxygen

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- In a feat of film direction born out of Christie LeBlanc’s brilliant script, Alexandre Aja signs his name to a gripping, futuristic huis clos, set entirely in a cryogenic chamber

Review: Oxygen
Mélanie Laurent in Oxygen

"You are advised to slow down your rate of air consumption in order to delay asphyxiation". A formidable expert in angst-inducing survival films (vis-a-vis the psychopathic killer in High Tension, the mutant cannibals in The Hills Have Eyes, the alligators in Crawl and the self-explanatory Piranha 3-D), French director Alexandre Aja is now venturing into new oppressive territory with Oxygen [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, which will be released unto the world by Netflix on 12 May and which explores the theme of confinement.

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Just like in Buried [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Rodrigo Cortés
film profile
]
by Rodrigo Cortés (2010) – whose story was set entirely within a coffin - Oxygen does an admirable job of conveying a claustrophobic huis clos, by incorporating a sci-fi element in the form of a protagonist who suddenly awakens to find herself trapped in a cryogenic chamber, covered in electrodes and wrapped in a fabric cocoon which she must tear her way through with any means available to her (she’s held tight by a belt around her waist and has restraints around her feet) in order to breathe properly. Indeed, breathing will fast become an overarching priority in the film, as the unflappable liaison interface known as Milo, who is "programmed to respond to all your latest needs", soon informs our heroine (played by Mélanie Laurent): "malfunction detected, oxygen reserves compromised, cryogenic treatment suspended". Oxygen levels are at 36% and if the situation doesn’t improve, the timer is set for an inescapable (and incredibly painful) death.

"What’s happening? – You are in a highly agitated state. Would you like a sedative? – I want to get out, I want to get out – I am not able to comply with this request at this time." Who is our protagonist? How did she end up in here? How will she get out? How will she make contact with the outside world? So many questions to which this frantic young woman can offer no answers, her memories lost in a thick fog pierced through by occasional flashes, which could just as easily be real memories as hallucinations caused by her dwindling air supply. Trying to channel her emotions, which have been pushed to their ultimate limits ("I’m not in a box, I’m not in a box"), "the omicron 267 bioform" (as the machine calls her) combs frantically through any dregs of information she can access, in order to make sense of her confinement and to find a much-needed way out. But a host of other surprises await our panicked heroine…

Oxygen makes perfect use of the rules of unity of time, place and action governing classical dramas, incorporating all the relevant ingredients for a credible medical sci-fi flick (processors, brain activity monitoring, kinetic regulation, hypersleep, liquid polymer, etc.), and playing skilfully on the dual challenge of the mental labyrinth and the very physical tomb which the protagonist is desperately trying to escape. "A bit like the way water records the size, shape and speed of a falling stone by way of its ripples", the film unveils itself very subtly to the viewer, unfurling with every twist (no spoilers) woven into Christie LeBlanc’s first-rate screenplay. These are high-precision mechanics, but they never break with the emotional codes associated with the angst-inducing genre which are so masterfully managed by Alexandre Aja. His directorial approach (shored up by special effects, sound and music) makes full use of the many possibilities presented by the reduced space and by the atmosphere within the cryogenic chamber, so as to reproduce a very physical experience where animal nature and intellectuality are put to urgent use with the sole goal of survival.

Oxygen is produced by French firm Getaway Films in association with US outfit Echo Lake Entertainment.

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(Translated from French)

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