Oxygen’s twists and turns keep you guessing, but don’t add up to a coherent story.
How to rate Netflix’s latest entry into the science fiction genre, Oxygen? The films visual style is excellent, and its protagonist is well played. It weaves through a story dripping in tension as it teases out revelations, keeping you glued to the screen. While you’re watching it, it seems to be flipping all the right switches.
Unfortunately, the moment it finishes, reality comes rushing back at you and it’s impossible not to spot the ridiculousness of its machinations.
A woman (Mélanie Laurent) wakes up in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of how she got there, and she must find a way out before running out of air.
Ciphers and Symbols.
Director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, Crawl) loads up his film with pregnant imagery. Lab rats running a maze sets up the premise of our heroine trapped in a logical puzzle with incomplete information, trying desperately to navigate her cramped prison to find a way out. As she gets her bearings, images or snippets of conversation trigger flashbacks that usually provide the vital clue to solving her current predicament. They also reveal parts of her history and constantly recolor the audience’s understanding of what is going on and who the players in the drama are.
I salute Aja and Laurent for their efforts. Both do quite a bit with just the bare essentials. Aja’s film is mostly a one set play with a single actor. It’s not the first “trapped in a phone booth” style thriller, but it is one of the more effective ones thanks to pacing and use of visuals and flashbacks. Similarly, Laurent has to build up her character with very limited tools: she’s rarely in a scene with other characters (and when she is, in flashbacks, they’re mostly dialogue free), so she only has her immediate environment and the verbal chess match she plays with the cryopod’s recalcitrant AI, MILO, to work with. She nonetheless turns in a riveting performance.
Many of the very things that make Oxygen engrossing in the moment make it ridiculous in hindsight. The cryopod is a deathtrap, with its subsystems and AI working against our protagonist every step of the way. Nobody looking to safeguard their occupant would design such a diabolical system. The film leans into this diagnosis, hinting that our heroine has been trapped here by an unknown antagonist. We spend the first 45 minutes trying to figure out a SAW-esque horror plot when it turns out to be a red herring.
Eventually its revealed that our hero is not locked into some psychopath’s murder basement, but is already on her way to another planet. Why the AI and the people Laurent manages to contact via the pod’s communication system don’t reveal this to her is completely insane. She’s actively trying to short circuit the pod, and everyone who knows that this would jettison her ass out into space keep that secret hidden from her.
At the end of the day, I just couldn’t get over all of the contrivances and trap doors Oxygen uses to gin up the suspense needed to keep you hooked for its run time. None of them add up. They exist just to keep you and the protagonist grasping at straws.
When all of the puzzle pieces fall into place, it doesn’t illuminate the prior pieces. The reasons for keeping our lead in the dark are galaxy-brained nonsense that the film tries to hand-wave away with convoluted techno-babble and deus ex machina reveals. The film strongly hints that Laurent simply needs to remember her past and the solution to the puzzle will fall into place like a Swiss watch. Instead, we get a mind-bogglingly simple fix that anyone monitoring the system from the outside (i.e. literally everyone who our hero talks to!) should have found and implemented as soon as she woke up. It’s the cherry on top of the insultingly airy confection Alexandre Aja has whipped up for us.