Nobody will be perfectly calm with waking up in a cramped room with scant oxygen and no escape out. That’s why being buried alive, like in Buried, is such a potential area for filmmakers because the very concept of it would immediately terrify everyone.
Netflix’s sci-fi thriller Oxygen, aka Oxygène, is the new film to pit the lead in an impossible situation. Liz, played by Mélanie Laurent, wakes up in a cryogenic pod with no memory about who she is or how she got there, but she is aware that she is running out of oxygen and has less than an hour to figure out why. Liz wants to reconfigure her memories in hopes of finding a way out of the situation she’s in, but has she been buried alive, or are the true motives much more sinister than she would imagine?
Oxygen will evoke the indelible terror of Prometheus’ automated abortion system. Buried Alive springs to mind, as does the Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ episode about a prisoner who eludes capture by hiding in a coffin. Ryan Reynolds was also buried alive in a coffin, with just a mobile phone, torch, and a few supplies. Liz, alas, can’t seem to be able to fist-punch her way out like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.
Aja flips the camera 180 degrees between the pod roof and Laurent’s face several times in the film’s most powerful sequence, heightening the suspense as we feel like we’re wiggling, wiggling into oblivion with Liz. Despite this, Oxygen isn’t as powerful as it should be.
Regardless of how frightening the idea is, With the exception of Mathieu Amalric’s disembodied voice as the pod’s operator MILO, Laurent has little to do with the movie’s limited set and no one to play against. She sells the situation’s absolute fear and panic, as well as investing you in Liz, which is no simple feat when she begins as a blank canvas. Laurent gives an enthralling and diverse performance as she takes on the solo role.
Alexandre Aja is best known for his gory horror films, but in Oxygen, he displays operation on a more cerebral basis. The film has its share of shiver scenes, particularly if you have a needle phobia, but the anxiety comes from the condition and Liz’s emotional rollercoaster. As the film’s secrets are revealed, and exposition takes precedence over thrills, the film begins to lose momentum. As it approaches its climax, you should be gasping for air, but instead, you’ll find yourself losing interest. While Buried started with a dark flourish, Oxygen can’t seem to find the right note to finish on.
Oxygen-thanks to Mélanie Laurent’s invaluable contribution remains a compelling high-concept thriller that unequivocally proves that being buried alive is the worst, indeed.