There’s something very disorienting about waking up in a place you don’t recognize. It’s a feeling we’ve likely all experienced at least once in our lives, after emerging from a particularly long or deep sleep. Jet lag can fuel a confusion in the body about what time it’s supposed to be, and being in a new home or room can add to that. In most cases, it’s a fleeting, momentary sensation, one that dissipates once reality sets in and it once again becomes clear that surroundings are as they should be and all is well. But when that doesn’t happen, and details continue to become elusive even after enough time to theoretically acclimate has passed, panic can start to set in since it’s not easy to escape a situation that can’t even be properly understood.
In Netflix’s new sci-fi drama Oxygen, a woman (Mélanie Laurent) awakens in a cryogenic pod. She can’t remember who she is or how she got there, but her mind works well enough to tell her how to communicate – in her native French – with the unseen computer voice (Mathieu Amalric) that spits back far more information about her vitals than about anything she actually wants to know. She deduces that she must be in a hospital and that help can’t be far away, and, unable to move or escape her close quarters, uses every instinct she can muster to come up with as many details as possible to figure a way out of a scenario that she knows won’t give her long due to the rapidly dropping level of oxygen she’s repeatedly told she has.
This film takes a simple premise that’s been utilized many times before, that of a protagonist who doesn’t know who she is and has to re-learn everything critical with a ticking time clock. The feeling of claustrophobia is absolutely present, beginning with the woman, who soon discovers that her name is Elizabeth, starting to move while she’s clearly not meant to, forced to claw her way out of a constraining suit that serves as a cocoon. Once she has successfully broken free, her challenge becomes even more cumbersome, since there is now a mental block to go along with the physical one, forcing her to be clever in how she manipulates a computer meant to keep her where she is into feeding her clues about how to outsmart it.
This film’s best asset is its lead actress, Laurent, who has had decent international success after a breakthrough role in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, where she demonstrated her ability to play a witty survivalist more than capable of going up against formidable enemies and relishing the opportunity to do so. She was charming as a love interest for Ewan McGregor in the underrated Beginners, and has also appeared in other American productions like Now You See Me and Operation Finale. This return to French cinema offers her the opportunity to fully embody a character who knows how to instinctively react in an objectively terrifying situation, and she deftly keeps her frantic anxiety in check as she does her best to focus while alarm bells sound regularly, reminding her of the impending asphyxiation that awaits her.
This is a film where audiences may be considerably more aware of what is going on than Elizabeth is, able to piece together a likely direction for the narrative even while Elizabeth jumps from theory to theory in her desperate attempts to comprehend that which she has been shown and that which she has heard. Director Alexandre Aja is known for his ability to enhance horror fare like High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D, Horns, and Crawl, and here he brings a carefully-calibrated approach that enables 100 minutes of one woman trapped in one location to feel urgent and involving. It’s not a revolutionary or groundbreaking concept, but one that’s fairly well-executed and certainly capable of maintaining suspense.
Oxygen premieres on Netflix on Wednesday, May 12th.