The travails of a protagonist struggling to sustain herself against a limited supply of oxygen may seem like a particularly uncanny mirror to the reality of India's second COVID-19 wave, but that isn't the only reflection of present times in Alexandre Aja's Oxygen. Starring MÃ©lanie Laurent as Omicron-267, a "bio form" trapped in a cryogenic chamber that is fast depleting its reserves of oxygen, Aja's latest is a refreshing sci-fi take on the "you wake up in a room" trope.
The opening sequence is rife with meaning: a woman (Laurent) emerges, gasping, from a cocoon. The red hue of the enclosed space she is in resembles a womb; her movements are of an embryo breaking free of its sac. But the same setting and actions could also indicate death: the cocoon is really a shroud, the chamber a coffin in which the woman has been confined alive. Both interpretations of the scene are correct, as we'll find out.
The woman gleans a few clues when she awakens: she is evidently in a cryogenic chamber meant to preserve her body, her functions are being monitored by an AI system called MILO, the oxygen level is dangerously low. She has no memory of who she is or how she got there, nor does it seem like anyone outside the chamber is aware of her existence. She fights her frantic response to her claustrophobic prison by drifting into tantalising glimpses of a barely remembered childhood and time spent outdoors. Then, with a countdown on how long she has in order to survive, little over an hour, she attempts to use MILO to contact someone on the outside, unlock the chamber, and reconstruct her own story and identity.
MILO, in the way of a perfectly neutral processing system, is both prompt assistant and aggravating foe. Its primary goal is to ensure the longevity of the "bio-form" known as Omicron-267, but it is a bland and empathy-less entity, wholly impervious to its charge's struggles. Against its unyielding interface, the woman seeks solutions to her situation. In doing so, Oxygen delves into the idea of self-awareness: what it means to gain cognisance of who you are as an organism, what you look like, what your senses tell you about yourself and the environment. As Omicron-267 discovers that she is in fact, a scientist called Dr Elizabeth Hansen and that her field of research had something to do with her current situation, as she looks upon a projection of her face for the first time " we're watching a being come to terms with her own existence.
As Elizabeth " Liz " gains consciousness, we see her cycle through hope, whenever a brief chimera of escape appears, only to inevitably despair when it proves untenable. Liz is also fighting her own mind: hallucinations, memories that dissipate even before they take shape telling her only half the story she needs to know, an inability to determine what is real and what is not. She has to find a way to focus on only the essential truths: her body, a few facts, MILO. The answers have to be found within the stifling contours of her box, through the physical sensations that let her access her memories.
Aja and writer Christine LeBlanc keep the tension at fever pitch as Liz tries to beat the clock and her own mind. Laurent has little to work with " be it the range of movement she's allowed (the chamber has just enough wriggle room to raise her upper torso by a few degrees) or the disembodied voices that serve as her co-stars for the most part. But she invests Liz with all of the panic, anger, frustration, acceptance and resilience that the character needs to make the viewer invested in her predicament. Liz is a gritty protagonist: she is not paralysed into inactivity because her choices are difficult or have less than optimal outcomes. She's going to fight for her life regardless.
Oxygen doesn't have a wholly convincing ending, in part because as tightly constructed as the parts within the chamber are, Aja and LeBlanc falter when it comes to the rather expansive narrative of the world outside, leaving the details nebulous. Overall though, this is a thrilling watch, as much for its concept and the questions it raises about what it means to be conscious, as for its exploration of what humans are willing to do to survive.
Oxygen is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here "