Oxygen (2021) poster

Oxygen (2021)



France. 2021.


Director – Alexandre Aja, Screenplay – Christie LaBlanc, Producers – Alexandra Aja, Brahim Chioua, Noemie Devide, Gregory Levasseur & Vincent Maraval, Photography – Maxime Alexandre, Music – Rob, Visual Effects – Mac Guff Ligne (Supervisors – Thierry Onillon & Bruno Sommier) & The Yard VFX (Supervisor – Laurens Ehrmann), Special Effects – Atelier 69, Makeup Effects Supervisor – Olivier Afonso, Production Design – Jean Rebaasse. Production Company – Getaway Films/Echo Lake Entertainment.


Melanie Laurent (Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Hansen/Omicron 267), Mathieu Amalric (Voice of M.I.L.O), Malik Zidi (Leo Ferguson), Eric Herson Macarel (Voice of Capitaine Moreau)


A woman wakes up in a cryogenic capsule. She has no memory of who she is. M.I.L.O., the A.I. that tends her, refers to her only as Omicron 267. She finds that she is unable to get out of the capsule because she does not have the access codes. Using the computer’s connections, she is able to identify herself by her DNA as Elizabeth Hansen, a scientist who worked in cryogenics. She uses M.I.L.O. to contact the police and get them to trace the manufacturer to get the access codes in order to affect a rescue before the amount of oxygen in the capsule runs out

French director Alexandre Aja is a name that has appeared consistently on the genre horizon ever since his second film, the gore-drenched home invasion film High Tension (2003) made in France. Aja was brought to the US for the remake of The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and has remained there ever since with the likes of Mirrors (2008), the remake of Piranha (2010), Horns (2013), the non-genre thriller The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016) and the killer alligator film Crawl (2019). Aja has also produced/written P2 (2007), the remake of Maniac (2012), The Pyramid (2014) and produced The Other Side of the Door (2016) and 47 Meters Down (2017).

Before we start, I have to tell the story about my own version of Oxygen. A few years back (circa 2013), a filmmaker I had gotten to know through the site suggested to me the idea of writing a script. The concept he pitched was doing “Buried (2010) in space” – the idea being to make a film that could cut costs by shooting on a single set. I went away and thought about it for a while and the script I came up with involved a lone survivor of an intergalactic space mission who was adrift in an escape capsule following a space disaster. The premise changed between drafts with he initially being in a cryogenic capsule and having to be woken up periodically and having a series of conversations with the controlling A.I. about what was going on. The idea was that thousands of years would pass between each time he woke up until eventually there was no longer an answer from home. Later drafts took the concept to where he became trapped circling the event horizon of a black hole and time began to dilate. As time slowed down infinitely for him, he was able to experience the entire passing of humanity and the heat death of the universe, at the same time as inside the capsule he was reminiscing back on the life he left behind and how he never had time to devote to relationships and the people that mattered. The main problem with the film was how the heck do you portray an abstract concept like the heat death of the universe, least of all on a low budget. For varying reasons, nothing happened with the film – I still think it would make for a fairly cool idea for a film someday.

Oxygen has not exactly the same idea but conducts a very similar variation on it. Christie LeBlanc’s script opens with Melanie Laurent waking up in a cryogenic capsule with no memory of who she is and the A.I. telling her she has a limited oxygen supply. The vibe is of something akin to an Imprisonment Thriller like Buried – where for all except a handful of shots, the camera remains inside the cryogenic capsule with her right throughout, just like Ryan Reynolds in the coffin in Buried.

Melanie Laurent trapped in a cryogenic capsule in Oxygen (2021)
Melanie Laurent trapped in a cryogenic capsule

There have been a lot of films that use cryogenics for various purposes – I have an essay on them here with Films About Cryogenics and Suspended Animation – but few where the cryogenics are actually a central element of the plot. This is one of the few. The other film that could be said to have had some influence here is Air (2015), which had Norman Reedus and Djimon Hounsou as cryogenic caretakers who are woken and have 90 minutes of air before they must return to their capsules only to find one of the capsules is broken and they have to choose who lives and who dies. Alexandre Aja creates some tight tension out of the countdown – in fact, I would go so far as to say that this is his best film to date.

I liked Christie LeBlanc’s script – she takes the story in completely different directions to the ones I ever envisioned. She expands the film out like a conceptual puzzlebox where Melanie Laurent keeps receiving a series of jolt surprises about who she is and what is happening. She spends some time finding her identity and how she had a husband – only for this to be spun on her head and she told part way through the film that there is no husband and record of who she is. I don’t want to spoil too many of the twists as preserving them is fundamental about what makes the film work – but will discuss some of these in the Spoilers section below.

[PLOT SPOILERS] The film floors you about the point that Alexandre Aja pulls back from Melanie Laurent’s capsule and keeps pulling back in a single shot to reveal it nested on board a spaceship. (These contain some excellent visual effects from Mac Guff Ligne, although I would question the sense in building a ship with a vast cylinder of cryo-capsules that is completely open to the void – at the very least, it should be better shielded from potential damage than it is). The film keeps pulling back from there in a series of ingenious Conceptual Breakthrough revelations that make this into a strong and standout work of SF.

Trailer here

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