A taut single-location Netflix thriller about a woman (Mélanie Laurent) who wakes up in a futuristic cryogenic chamber with no idea of who she is, why she’s there, or what she can to get out before she runs out of air, Alexandre Aja’s “Oxygen” would seem to be the perfect COVID-era collaboration between the directors of “High Tension” and “Breathe.” The rare high-concept movie that grows more compelling as it begins to unveil its mysteries, the film plays out as a frantic game of 200 questions that hinges on Laurent’s character desperately asking the chamber’s ultra-advanced A.I. companion (voiced by Mathieu Amalric) to sift through social media and make a few last-ditch phone calls. Anything, she hopes, that might restore her memory or make contact with someone who can open the pod bay door before she asphyxiates to death.
But for all of the wild reveals that “Oxygen” has in store, most of which are predictable in broad strokes, there’s one minor little detail that Christie LeBlanc’s script never satisfyingly explains despite the fact that it’s baked into the deepest bedrock of this film: Why in hell would a cryogenic chamber ever come equipped with social media!? Surely the best part of suspended animation is the sweet release from the poison grip of posting. We’re talking about a device that has two modes — “Dead” and “Basically Dead” — and in the bizarre event that anyone ever woke up in one of these things, it’s hard to imagine that Siri would be the key to their salvation.
“Oxygen” is the sort of sly exercise in cinematic anxiety that demands a certain suspension of disbelief, and earns just enough of it to entertain. It’s also fair to say that the high-tech capabilities of the film’s setting are meant to make viewers forward and interrogate Amalric’s Medical Interface Liaison Operator (or MILO) with the same fervor that Omicron-267 does (to call Laurent’s character by the name that MILO gives her). It could even be argued that Omicron-267’s dire predicament is proof enough that cryogenic chambers should come with some kind of emergency system for interfacing with the outside world.
But when it comes to a movie that mistakes its premise for a story — a movie that mines most of its conflict and all of its drama from solving the “whats” and “whys” of its supine heroine’s situation — logistics are really the only thing we have to latch onto. With that kind of leak in the air supply, it’s only a matter of time before the whole enterprise goes braindead.
Fortunately, Aja knows how to fray nerves with the best of them, and “Oxygen” finds a number of clever ways to keep our attention focused on the film’s clear and present dangers. The actors are the most valuable asset in that regard, even if only one of them appears on screen. Laurent — delivering so much of her performance in extreme close-up that each of her nostrils deserves its own residual checks — is excellent as someone who essentially has an hour to figure out who she is if she has any hope for survival.
Amnesiac acting is a unique challenge, but Laurent’s flop-sweat fear is undercut by the intriguing sense that all of the answers Omicron needs are swimming around in her head somewhere, and she just needs to steady herself for long enough to fish them out. MILO is always calm and happy to be of assistance so long as Omicron asks him the right questions (Amalric strikes just the right balance between robot and rescue worker), but it doesn’t help that he’s constantly reminding her that she only has so much oxygen left.
For all of its illogical flourishes, the Cryosalide pod is a small wonder of production design, and Jean Rabasse deserves credit for crafting a fluorescent tomb so dynamic that “Oxygen” feels cinematic even within the narrow confines of its setting. From the moment Omicron wakes up — peeling away a synthetic cocoon from around her face and confronting the orbital screen above her, which pulses like a black hole displacing a starry patch of dark sky whenever MILO speaks — the pod feels like both a coffin and a womb in equal measure.
It’s fancy, and the fact that tampering with it supposedly violates European law raises a few eyebrows, but it’s also dehumanizing. That might have something to do with the lab rat motif that runs across the many hazy flashbacks in this restless film, each one of them puncturing its contained atmosphere and belying Aja’s unwillingness to convey the full claustrophobia of being stuck in a Jonny Ive death capsule. Or maybe it’s only natural for someone to feel like a piece of meat when they’re stuck inside a glorified freezer.
Either way, “Oxygen” is essentially an entire feature set inside the automated surgery table that Noomi Rapace uses to perform her own c-section in “Prometheus” (incidentally, Rapace was once tapped to star in this), and Aja works with cinematographer Maxime Alexandre and the rest of his crew to extrapolate bonafide action sequences from the Cryosalide’s basic functions. In a movie that often undercuts its own physical reality, “Oxygen” is never more intense than when Omicron is fighting off the articulating machine arm that tries to stick her with sedatives or yanking tubes out of her gut to stop MILO from giving her some even harder drugs.
Such visceral moments provide a sharp contrast to the phantom mystery that Omicrom is trying to solve in between, which is full of groan-worthy gaslighting and mind-boggling contrivances. LeBlanc’s script fills in almost every gap by the time it’s all said and done, but no movie about a person stuck in a tube should ever be this convoluted. There’s some potential fun to the fact that MILO holds all of the info that Omicron needs and is happy to give them to her so long as she asks the right questions; anyone who’s ever been frustrated by Siri’s literalness will be able to relate to Laurent’s frustration as she bangs her head against questions that are too abstract for an AI to answer.
Alas, “Oxygen” is too busy gasping for itself to embrace the Socratic method, and so there’s precious little payoff to the answers that it gradually teases out from MILO, and once the movie’s cards are on the table there isn’t any room left for it to play with them. Omicron barely has the energy required to post about what she’s learned along the way. While the light at the end of the tunnel actually illuminates a neat testament to the power of the survival instinct in all living things, Aja’s film loses so much air on the way to its grand finale that it barely has anything left to exhale by the time it’s over.
“Oxygen” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Wednesday, May 12.