A woman (Mélanie Laurent) who wakes in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of how she got there must find a way out before running out of air.
High-concept thrillers always invite a certain amount of second-guessing and overthinking. When it's something like French sci-fi thriller 'Oxygen', we're automatically interrogating and doubting everything we're seeing, and it can often happen that we become consumed by trying to outsmart the concept rather than simply enjoying it. If the plot is too tight, there's no mystery and you can lose interest. Conversely, you can start to poke holes in it. 'Oxygen' starts off with a somewhat familiar concept, but then begins to spin further and further away from where it began.
You may recall 'Buried', starring Ryan Reynolds, a few years back. Reynolds played a truck driver who was - you guessed it - buried in a box somewhere in Iraq with a mobile and a few other items and had to puzzle his way out of it. People drew comparisons with Alfred Hitchcock's 'Rope' almost immediately. Here, director Alexandre Aja is again taking inspiration from 'Rope', but also throwing in some brainy sci-fi and soap opera spins on it all as well. However, much like 'Buried', it all rests on the lead.
Mélanie Laurent tends to demonstrate her acting ability in small moments, but it's always evident. You only need to look at movies like Denis Villeneuve's 'Enemy', 'Beginners', and of course, 'Inglorious Basterds', to know that she's capable of delivering a wide range of emotions and making them look and feel authentic. You can feel every bit of panic and terror, and not just because the camera is jammed right into her face and we can see every bead of sweat running down it. Her performance is vibrant and alive at every moment of 'Oxygen'. She has to physically contort herself around the claustrophobic pod while an alien-sounding Mathieu Amalric calmly explains how she's going to die slowly from asphyxiation.
It's interesting to note that Anne Hathaway and Noomi Rapace were both lined up for the central role, but both ended up passing on it. Would the movie have been better with either of them? It's hard to know, but it does feel like both might have been less willing to go to some of the places Laurent goes. In fact, with the star power of someone like Anne Hathaway, it almost certainly would have ended up as a different movie entirely - and probably not as good, either.
At an hour and forty minutes, there's just enough story here to keep the thing going, and it's merciful as well that Netflix didn't try turn this into a four-part miniseries for the sake of content. A good, tight, high-concept thriller is worth far more than that. Although Alexandre Aja's ping-ponging between genres may make him hard to pin down, what's clear is he has a good command of tension and suspense. There's more than a few scenes in 'Oxygen' that'll make your skin crawl, and you'll often find yourself catching a breath in between them as well.
'Oxygen' is available on Netflix from Wednesday 12th May.