It nearly beggars belief that Netflix’ Oxygen wasn’t developed entirely in the COVID-19 era. It is, after all, exactly the sort of science-fiction thriller you would expect to spring from this moment: Small, constricted, with a limited cast, restricted scenery, and a strong thematic undercurrent of fear, isolation, and uncertainty.
It wasn’t until I finished watching the film, though, and went digging for a bit of background information that I realized this is a project I’ve been following for a while now. Based on a 2016 script by Christie LeBlanc, Oxygen was originally supposed to be an Anne Hathaway film by the name of O2. After Hathaway left the project, it dropped off my radar. But sometime after that, Noomi Rapace stepped in to fill her shoes, only to depart the project and open the door for Mélanie Laurent to star as the film
transitioned from Hollywood vehicle to independent French/American picture distributed by Netflix.
Laurent stars as a character initially known only as “Omicron 267,” a medical patient of some sort who wakes up in a casket-like cryochamber with no memory of who she is, why she’s there, or what’s going on. To say that she carries the film would be an understatement. For the most part, hers is the only face we see onscreen, aside from some intermittent flashbacks. The only other major character is MILO (Medical Interface Liaison Operator), an Alexa-like A.I. digital voice assistant that operates the cryochamber and quickly informs Omicron 267, upon her waking, that her oxygen is limited and depleting rapidly.
This makes for a tense and interesting twist on both the ticking-clock and buried-alive story tropes, and for the most part the film plays out in real time, as Omicron 267—who eventually recovers memories of a former life as a
OXYGEN AT A GLANCE
This sci-fi take on the ticking-clock and buried-alive tropes keeps you locked in a high-tech coffin with a single actor for 100 minutes.
The high dynamic range and expanded color gamut of Dolby Vision are used to good effect in Netflix’ virtually artifact-free presentation.
The Dolby Atmos soundtrack keeps things interesting by using the side and height channels to introduce some sonic variety into the character’s sealed world.
cryogenic doctor named Elizabeth Hansen—attempts to call for help and, when that fails, tries to find her own way out of this high-tech coffin while also piecing together and making sense of her fragmented recollections.
There are some interesting and surprising narrative twists along the way, but none of them would work if not for the Laurent’s exceptional acting prowess. Without being able to move much more than her head and arms, she delivers the sort of performance most actors must dream of being able to turn in. Credit is also due to Mathieu Amalric, who gives MILO’s voice the sort of depth and nuance you wouldn’t expect from a digital assistant. In some ways, his performance recalls Douglas Rain’s turn as HAL 9000, but while Rain had the unenviable task of playing a sinister artificial intelligence, Amalric infuses MILO with the sort of ambiguity that leaves you guessing as to whether or not he’s being intentionally infuriating.
In those scenes where Liz struggles to stumble upon the syntactic commands that will invoke the response she’s hoping for from MILO, for example, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the arguments my wife has with Alexa as she fumbles for the exact combination of words that will result in an adjustment to the thermostat controls, or music playback in the back of the house but not the front, or the dimming of some little-used light in one corner of the house or another.
It’s Liz’s interactions with MILO that make Oxygen legitimate science-fiction, though, rather than merely a high-tech, futuristic thriller, as the film has something interesting to say about our increasing reliance on A.I. and the pitfalls associated with anthropomorphizing these highly intelligent but unthinking virtual automata.
The other thing that keeps Oxygen consistently engaging is its cinematography and sound design. There are only so many angles from which you can photograph someone inside a box so small as to restrict its occupant entirely to a supine position, but director Alexandre Aja and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre make it work. In many shots, the camera clings so closely to Laurent’s face that her cheeks are in focus while her nose starts to bleed into the background bokeh, which couldn’t have made the film’s transfer easy to encode. Thankfully, Netflix’s presentation remains virtually artifact-free.
The high dynamic range and expanded color gamut of Dolby Vision are used here to good effect, especially in rendering the various screens, readouts, and synthetic surfaces that litter Liz’s electronic coffin with high specular intensity without over- or under-doing the shadows. And all aspects of the image that are in focus at any given time are delivered with exceptional detail and sharpness.
The Dolby Atmos soundtrack also keeps things interesting by injecting MILO’s voice and the occasional phone call coming into the cryochamber into the surrounds and height channels. Normally, this sort of gee-whiz sound mixing would irritate or distract me, but it works here, mostly because it reinforces the notion that MILO serves dual functions—as a character on the one hand, but a mere function of the environment on the other.
My only real beef with Netflix’ delivery of the sound is that the service defaults to the English dub, which leaves much to be desired. The voice actors chosen to replace Laurent and Amalric as Liz and MILO match neither the intensity nor the nuance of the original performances and drag the quality of the production’s down at least a letter grade and a binary operator suffix.
Mind you, Oxygen isn’t a perfect film even in the original French. At 100 minutes long, it tiptoes right up to the edge of overstaying its welcome and could have stood to lose about 15 or 20 minutes in the editing room, even at the risk of further undermining the film’s nigh-real-time conceit. But Laurent’s performance in particular, combined with the interesting concept and fascinating visuals, make it a worthwhile film despite its flaws.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.