When playwright/deviant Oscar Wilde famously remarked that imitation was the most sincere form of flattery, he probably never predicted the idea applying to a new Netflix original, but well, it fits, and here we are. Their new sci-fi horror thriller, “Oxygen,” is a film that borrows heavily from such intimate looks at claustrophobic spaces like 2010’s “Buried” and a dash of, say, cryonic-freezing drama, “Forever Young. ” Not only does “Oxygen” steal heavily from the former, still-decent Ryan Reynolds thriller, but director Alexandre Aja—who shot the movie filmed during the heights of 2020’s pandemic—utilizes the need for socially distanced movie sets to his advantage with a story that somehow manages to incorporate not-so-subtle references to last year’s viral outbreak, whether intentional or not. With a spartan cast that’s elevated by star Melanie Laurent‘s downright gripping performance as the lead, “Oxygen” may not be the most original film on the block, but it’s still taut and compelling thriller that straps you into the cryo-chamber and viscerally punishes you as much as it does its protagonist.
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Unfortunately, the comparisons to “Buried” are about as far as one can get without venturing dangerously into spoiler territory. However, for a film that largely focuses solely on one character from start to finish, there are still enough unexpected twists to keep the movie captivating and the viewer locked in. Like “Buried, ” “Oxygen” revolves around a woman (Laurent) who awakens within the confines of a small, confined space. In this case, it’s a sleek cryogenic box, and she’s armed with hardly any knowledge whatsoever about who she is, how she got in this predicament, and, most importantly, how she might be able to get out.
Luckily, a Siri-esque A.I. named Milo (voiced by Mathieu Amalric) has come to the rescue, one which serves as both H.A.L.-esque confidant and partner in her attempts to piece together what may be happening. Vague flashbacks and video projected by the A.I. either help the heroine discovers the answers she seeks or confuses her further. Still, she’d better act fast, as the air…er, oxygen…has been steadily running out since she first opened her eyes. Yes, it’s a basic conceit.
Alexandre Aja makes the most of the enclosed space by outfitting it with copious amounts of touchscreens, life support monitors, and the black void into which Laurent communicates with Milo. All this fraught tension — the engine that makes the movie so coiled and entertaining — is backed by a heavily orchestral score that’s as much a character as those seen on screen. Robin Coudert’s anxious score is one that perfectly accompanies the unique angles Aja’s camera is somehow able to squeeze into and even several long tracking shots that further help to prevent any visual monotony. Those looking for some sleep-deprived jump scares will be content. “Oxygen” has several, while still knowing where to draw the hallucinatory line. Somehow a periodic, unexpectedly disgusting moment manages to sneak into the film from time to time, enough that makes several scenes nearly unwatchable in the best way possible. Oh, and if you had hoped that the film might open in a matter that brings to mind the still-horrifying moments inside the UFO from 1993’s “Fire in the Sky, ” you’re shockingly in luck.
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Ryan Reynolds delivered one of the finest performances of his career in “Buried, ” and in a near-identical fashion, Laurent does the same here. Luckily, once one can look past the plot points you’ve experienced before, a unique mystery does unfold, one which provokes enough curiosity that even the easily foreseen moments are buoyed by those that take the viewer by surprise. Laurent’s natural talent has always been on display throughout her career, but she’s truly in peak, convincing form here. The ability to convey confusion, terror, exhaustion, and a delirious blank stare all at once, with nuance from moment to moment, isn’t easy to pull off. Still, Laurent is just an expert in communicating this complex swirl of emotions.
The same can be said for Milo, who somehow serves as both pseudo-antagonist and helpful aide at the end of the day, like any library card catalog or person uttering, “Hey Google, ” he’s just doing his job. The rest of the sparse case isn’t really much of a match for Laurent; she’s that good, but they’re serviceable and, thankfully, not around all that much; more means to an end storytelling devices seen in flashbacks.
Aja’s managed to carve out a career of shlocky but still enjoyable guilty pleasures, be it 2019’s alligator-fest “Crawl, ” 2010’s B-horror “Piranha 3D,” or that 2006 remake of “The Hills Have Eyes.” Yet, with “Oxygen,” he’s managed to take a very well-traversed genre — the claustrophobic thriller — not necessarily break a lot of new ground with it, and still somehow breathe fresh new life into it. There’s not much in the way of subtext or a message; Aja has little to say about cryonics and the potential dangers of this still-controversial medical procedure. But that’s ok and works towards the filmmaker’s strengths of conveying escalating dread and fear with superb tension. “Oxygen” may not be the most unique film, but its terrifically panicky and suffocating qualities will leave you breathless nonetheless. [B+]