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The amazingly up-down career of director Alexandre Aja hits a peak with Oxygen, a brilliantly conceived and executed piece of high-concept sci-fi calling on all Aja’s skills as a manipulator of tension, a master of genre, a technical whizz.

Whether it’s his breakthrough, Switchblade Romance, or his deliberately schlocky Piranha 3D (featuring the memorable line “They took my penis”), Aja’s at his best working from a good screenplay. Oxygen’s is by first-timer Christie LeBlanc and is very strong – structurally taut, plausible and building gradually in pace.

Paragraph three and I haven’t said what it’s about yet. It’s very simple. A woman wakes up in a dark box. When the lights come up a bit she (and we) can see it’s a very hi-tech box, a cryo-chamber, in fact, and she’s in there for reasons we don’t understand – is she in hospital, in a hi-tech prison, is she being held for ransom, we don’t know. Whatever it is, as she shakes off her grogginess the computer’s reassuringly honeyed voice tells her that she’s been woken because there’s been a disruption to the oxygen supply. The levels are falling and are now at 35 per cent and are dropping fast. She’s got, oooh, about the length of a movie before she carks.

A game of wits develops, between Liz (though MILO the onboard computer refers to her as Omicron 267) and MILO. She suggests a method of escape, he tells her why it’s not possible, or that he can’t allow it because it’s dangerous, or that it’s not in his power, all the while supplying her with information, images of the outside world, phone lines when necessary, all the data and tech she could need. There’s an obstacle, Liz surmounts it, only to find another obstacle, all the while lying strapped on a hi-tech gurney with stents and shunts and all sorts of medical paraphernalia hanging out of her.

It’s the 2010 film Buried – Ryan Reynolds in a box out in the desert – with knobs on, literally. Or that Danny Boyle film 127 Hours, also 2010, in which James Franco played a climber with his arm stuck fast in a rocky cleft. And it uses the same tricks that both those movies use to ring the changes – flashbacks, flashforwards, some fantasy moments and a few hallucinations, which allow Aja to inject some moments of body horror, like Liz imagining there are rats in the box with her.

LeBlanc’s clever screenplay drops in little nuggets of plot here and there to keep things moving. As things progress, they become a little more sci-fi, and as Liz works her way out of what might be a medically induced amnesia (possibly the result of an injury?), things get a little more thriller-noir too. But whichever way it goes, LeBlanc is careful to keep it plausible. Liz’s only real tool is her rational mind, which fights against rising panic and hallucination caused by oxygen deprivation.

Liz on a sofa, her husband playing a piano
Liz thinks back to happy times

There are moments of high jeopardy too, like MILO suddenly deciding to kill Liz, on compassionate grounds. The term “palliative care” is used and out comes the syringe. But MILO is no HAL 9000 from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or maybe he is. LeBlanc and Aja know exactly what they’re up to here.

Even so, at the halfway mark I wondered how Aja and LeBlanc were going to keep this race-against-time thriller going. They do, with new jeopardy, new plot revelations, a tiny lift of the curtain here, a breakthrough there.

These “locked in a box” movies really test the mettle of their lead actor. Mélanie Laurent is on screen throughout, the odd memory of her husband or mother the only distraction, but as Liz works feverishly to make good her escape, Laurent puts on definitive finely calibrated performance.

This is your good story well told, its small budget used incredibly effectively and Aja realising that visuals from the outside world, in Liz’s memories and hallucinations mostly, need to be big and bold and even beautiful.

Being a Netflix film, it comes in a range of dubbed versions. Avoid the original French, if you like, and choose Polish or English or whatever, but that way you’ll miss out on Mathieu Amalric as MILO. His voice, hovering on the border between smooth and too smooth, is the entire film distilled down into an essence.

© Steve Morrissey 2021

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