Liz in her hi-tech box

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




In deep, deep, deep homage to 1980s horror, here’s a pungent, standout film that’s entirely enjoyable as long as you love seeing women’s scalps being removed – a quick razor to the forehead and they peel straight off, it seems.

A remake of William Lustig’s 1980 film of the same name, 2013’s Maniac makes one crucial and utterly transformative change – the point of view is through the eyes of a seriously disturbed serial killer (is there any other type?).

Directors and stars are what reviews usually concentrate on but the key players here are writers Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, whose Switchblade Romance in 2003 proved to the world that the French were adept at producing gut-shuddering horror if they wanted to.

They’ve done the same here, turning Frank, the 1980 villain of the piece (now played by Elijah Wood) into a Norman Bates figure, a psycho bent out of whack by a mother more interested in sating her libido than bringing up her child, who would be watching while she went at it.

Now older but still tormented by images of his mother being done every which way by strangers, Frank constructs his ideal, more virginal, women from shop mannequins which he’s tastefully accoutred with real female scalps.

Into this scenario arrives one day Anna (Nora Arnezeder) a blonde photographer, kittenishly cute, pretty as hell, her nipples tantalisingly visible through her T shirt as she makes Frank’s accidental acquaintance. He’s smitten, as were a good number of people in the audience when I saw this film last night. And from here springs the drama – is he going to fall in love and reform, or is his psychotic tendency going to get the upper hand?

As I said, we’re deep in the 1980s here – all men are rapists/killers, the city is evil, there’s a Basket Case grungy unwholesomeness to everything. On top of this there’s the soundtrack, by some French guy called Rob, a mix of early John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder, those soundtracks that Goblin did for Dario Argento. Over the end credits I think we heard Goldfrapp in their electropop phase. You get the picture. But the soundtrack is more than just an accompaniment to the film; it’s as integral to the film as the soundtrack to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was, perhaps more so, bringing a bright unnerving jollity to proceedings, though there’s bubble and trouble down in the bass.

The film is aiming for classic status, clearly. I mean mannequins, a Tooth Fairy-style collector of bits of women, overtones of House of Wax, all rewrapped in a subjective point of view. Here director Franck Khalfoun comes into his own, keeping things fast-moving and moody, though he cheats a little here and there. There are a few too many conveniently placed mirrors allowing us to catch glimpses of Frank. And our plucky madman also has convenient flashbacks, imagined idealised moments with the lovely Anna, plus out-of-body moments when he’s doing the actual killing.

I suppose if you’ve gone to the expense of hiring Frodo, you might as well get some shots of his face, or else what’s the point? To his credit, Wood does a lot with very little here, mumbling and muttering, lots of heavy breathing but he doesn’t overdo it. Which is crucial, because the last thing the writers/director of this singular movie want is for audiences to start identifying with the bad guy.

After three Lord of the Rings films and now a third of the way through appearing in three Hobbit films, Wood is clearly in Tolkien disavowal mode, repositioning himself away from the Shire by effectively saying “I’m bloody horrible, me.” He is. The middle-aged hardened film reviewer sitting next to me frequently had to put his hands over his eyes as Wood’s Frank did his stuff. This is probably not your ideal date movie.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Maniac – at Amazon

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