France (2021) Dir. Alexandre Aja
Most of us have woken up in the middle of the night and wondered where we are as a result of a weird dream or nightmare, whilst those who drink to excess will quite literally wake up in a stage place. Now imagine that strange place is a confined space where oxygen is limited and your memories are non-existent.
A woman, (Mélanie Laurent), wakes up inside an airtight cryogenic medical unit with no memory of she got there. In screaming for help, she is responded to by the A.I assistant MILO (Medical Interface Liaison Officer, voiced by Mathieu Amalric), who advises the woman to remain calm. She asks for the unit to be opened by MILO refuses without the administrator code.
Fortunately, MILO is able to access the outside world and the woman makes calls to the police to get help. Using MILO’s computer database, the woman searches for clues to her past, discovering she is Dr. Elizabeth Hansen, a cryogenics scientist and has a husband, Leo Ferguson. But finding Leo sees the start of another mystery for Elizabeth but with only enough oxygen for 90 minutes, will she live to solve it?
I don’t believe I have seen many French sci-fi films, outside of René Laloux’s animated classics Fantastic Planet and Time Masters, unless you count Méliès’ A Trip To The Moon. This would make Oxygen a first, although it wasn’t originally going to be a French made film, starting life in 2017 as a script by Christie LeBlanc entitled O2, starring Anne Hathaway who would later depart and be replaced by Sweden’s Noomi Rapace.
Serving as producer, Alexandre Aja would be promoted to director and the cast changed again, this time bringing in Mélanie Laurent prompting Aja to return to his native France after many years away in Hollywood. Whilst I have not seen it myself, I am aware that the plot shares some basic similarities a Ryan Reynolds film Buried except this is a much more hi-tech version.
The film opens almost like a horror film, with a cocooned figure writhing about bathed in an ominous intermittent red light, a face stretching furiously against a tight covering in a battle to break free and get some air. The quick edits and frenetic camerawork only add to the eeriness of the moment, the first sight of the mouth tearing a hole through the taut fabric creating doubts there is a human fighting for breath here.
Eventually, Liz – as she is henceforth known – succeeds in exposing her whole face to the fresh(er) air and is able to free her hands and legs, except she is strapped down and connected to the computer system via wires and intravenous drips. Confused by her surroundings, Liz wonders if she has been buried alive – an early sign of the film’s sci-fi credentials that she doesn’t question the spaceship like interior of her tomb, implying a futuristic setting where cryogenic chambers are commonplace.
MILO is a distant cousin of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey – calm, informative, and helpful to a point but a stickler for the rules. The one thing MILO is not is menacing and any arbitrary decision he does make is with Liz’s best interest in mind or simply following programmed procedure. But whilst MILO has a passive voice, the snaking arm that provides injections is terrifying in this confined space where the intended recipient has limited movement.
Being able to communicate with the outside world via MILO’s system help Liz piece the fragments of her memories together and jolt some other information into her head. Yet any discussion about Leo or attempts to get in touch with him draws more questions than answers. The police officer she talks to says Leo doesn’t exist making Liz wonder if she is imagining a false history, but her sparse memories are persistent.
Not unlike the clock that is ticking away as pertains to the oxygen supply in the unit, the percentages dropping by the minute. Liz not only has to find the truth but also has to figure out how to proceed before her life ends and to do this whilst immobile is one hell of a challenge. There is of course a big twist behind this which I won’t spoil but I imagine some smart arses out there might work out what it is early on – not that it is a stretch, but the script is good at both dropping hints and misdirection.
One thing I feel Aja missed a trick on is not making this a “real time” film to make the decreasing air supply a more tense plot device given how critical it is to Liz’s plight. MILO occasionally proffers updates otherwise, it slips too easily into the background. The other thing Aja could have done was maybe have a countdown clock on the screen, so even if it did have to skip ahead, the reminder is still prominent for the audience.
Generally, the script is tight and drip feeds information to move the plot forward or tease the truth for both Liz and the viewer. The ability to access Liz’s public records does feel a bit of a copout considering MILO routinely denies her any straight answers. implying he is programmed to conspire against her. Similarly, Liz’s recall for tiny but crucial details is conveniently photographic for someone who has been stuck in stasis.
Putting aside from the flashback scenes, Mélanie Laurent does a terrific job for someone restricted to lying down for almost 100 minutes. She deftly conveys the terror and paranoia of Liz’s claustrophobia as well as the resourcefulness of her inherent quizzical scientific mind, juxtaposed with MILO’s officious and phlegmatic tone which only Mathieu Amalric could provide.
With the Netflix budget meaning the SFX and visuals are top notch, Oxygen offers a unique take on the buried alive concept via its sci-fi setting, and with Laurent’s engaging performance is a tidy work to get immersed in.