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


Adam meets Anthony in Enemy


If there is such a thing as “what the hellness” then Denis Villeneuve’s latest film absolutely has it. But then the French-Canadian does have form. With Incendies Villeneuve managed to turn the conflict in the Middle East into a thriller with a reveal that disconcerted and amazed. In Prisoners he made us feel bad for suspecting that a lank haired, stuttering, educationally subnormal Paul Dano was a paedophile, and then made us feel bad for cutting such an obvious wrong’un too much slack.

The tricks are more playful in this latest exercise in duplicity. As with Prisoners, Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal, this time as Adam, a history professor who suddenly spots his spitting likeness in a movie he’s watching one night on his laptop when he should be snuggled up with his wife.

Instead of thinking “oh, that’s odd” and leaving it at that, Adam does a little digging, finds a few more films his doppelganger has been in, finds his agent, tracks down where he lives and then tentatively arranges a meeting, not realising that Anthony, the initially spooked actor also played by Gyllenhaal, might also have an agenda. Bizarrely, both men, when they meet, are so alike that there really is no gap between them, from the way they style their beards to the way they speak and react. And their partners (Adam’s is Mélanie Laurent; Anthony’s Sarah Gadon), each a good-looking blonde having a little relationship difficulty with her partner, seems to have the same problem too.

We’re very much in the sort of territory that late 1940s noir loved to wallow in – dark psychology, fractured personality, dreamscapes and hints of sexual deviancy. I haven’t mentioned the little vignettes that Villeneuve drops in of naked women in what looks like animal masks (it’s dark) slinking down long corridors? I have now.

At what point does the film leave reality behind? The answer is that it never really engages with it. It’s built inside a hall of mirrors – in real life there would be a thousand tells that would distinguish one person from another; here, Anthony even has a scar on his chest where Adam does. It doesn’t add up.

The plot is not the point though. It’s a vehicle for the mood of the thing. Has any recent film looked this queasily yellow? The colour of madness, cowardice, jaundice and death allied to a soundtrack of mournful clarinet, growling bassoon, honks of brass and nervous strings. The script is sparse, roads are empty, public spaces barely occupied, dialogue scarce but loaded. David Lynch is in there, in other words, though this is more “inspired by” than “lifted from”. And almost as proof here’s bizarro muse Isabella Rossellini as Anthony’s coolly unmaternal mother. Or was it Adam’s? Or are they the same person?

See it as an existential quest movie if you like – what is it that we are all searching for? Would having a doppelganger conveniently justify all our dark secrets, or scare the shit out of us? Both possibilities are examined in the closest that Gyllenhaal has got to this territory since Donnie Darko.

As for the ending, which suddenly makes all the psychological undertow overt in one laugh-out-loud shot, it’s Villeneuve’s raining-frogs-in-Magnolia moment, an abrupt full stop that signifies that he’s finished playing with us and we can all get back to whatever it was we were doing before. It’s going to irritate the hell out of people who haven’t been watching closely enough.

Enemy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2014