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Review: It's not fresh air, but 'Oxygen' leaves you gasping

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Mélanie Laurent stars in the French thriller "Oxygen."

Fans of "Inglorious Basterds" can already tell you that Mélanie Laurent pulls some heavy emotions out of a confined space. As Shosanna in that 2009 World War II revenge fantasy, the French actress is crucial to the film's absolutely unforgettable opening scene. Her character hides in quiet fear from Nazi thugs in the floorboards of a French country home, every moment dripping with tension, until she makes a tearful break for it. 

Now, Laurent gets to pull off a master class in the claustrophobic arts with "Oxygen." Directed by Alexandre Aja, the French sci-fi thriller hits Netflix on May 12. 

This is one of those where you don't want to give away any more than the bare bones. Laurent plays a woman who wakes up prone, strapped, hooked up to IV and stuffed in some sort of bag. She's confined within some kind of cryogenic pod. She does not know who she is or how she got into this confined space. Thankfully, the pod comes equipped with a mostly helpful AI named M.I.L.O. (voiced by Mathieu Amalric). Not thankfully, her own personal H.A.L. 9000 announces that the cryogenic chamber is rapidly losing oxygen, and it's not about to open up the hatch. Then, a race against time kicks off as the woman figures out who she is, how she got in the pod and how to save herself. 

Alexandre Aja is an experienced horror director, and "Oxygen" takes fear seriously.

Written by Christie LeBlanc, "Oxygen" evokes a plethora of films before it — you'll have your own touchstones, but my mind goes immediately to Ryan Reynolds in coffin-squirmer "Buried." Perhaps a better comparison is Alfonso Cuarón's stressful survival flick "Gravity," a movie that made me love Sandra Bullock more and then made me think that outer space itself should be in jail. 

Aja's new outing in the "aaah, let me out, let me out” genre comes with the director’s horror flick pedigree, including “The Hills Have Eyes” in 2006. Knowing that does help you make sense of “Oxygen,” which has a sterile futurist look but the instincts of a creature feature. The snaking, syringe-bearing arm of the pod is adjacent to the Sam Raimi playbook, for example. (“The Evil Dead” tree limbs or “Spider-Man 2” Doc Ock tentacle, take your pick.) Everything here feels a little more creeptastic than you might expect, but also a little more schlocky ... which, it should be said, is not strictly a bad thing. 

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Laurent is likely to bring more than a few people to “Oxygen.” (Hello.) If you need an actor to fill an hour and 40 minutes of screen time in a shiny metal bean, you can’t do much better than her — those intense, watchful eyes keep a plot going when the dialogue gets light. She cycles through every stage of grief at least a couple times here. “Oxygen” is also a mystery, and Laurent executes panicked deductive reasoning like a champ.

As a puzzle, this movie is a little frustrating. After all, it’s not like any of the flashes of Laurent’s returning memories or any of the clinical robot-ese that M.I.L.O. spouts off in response to her queries can be fit together by an enterprising viewer. The audience is even more in the dark than the woman in the pod (who at least has some soothing LED lights); she has a basic understanding of the rules of this world, even if she couldn’t begin to tell you her name. 

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But still, we’re here to have fun in the grand tradition of cinematic peril, and artfulness is just frosting on the cake. Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre finds inventive ways to create different frames and perspectives in an incredibly limiting space. It’s impressive.

We shan’t spoil the discoveries that Laurent’s character makes in her desperate attempt to escape suffocation, nor shall we give up the particular twists “Oxygen” takes on its way toward establishing a world we don’t even fully comprehend until the final minutes. There are some fun ideas here, if not reinvention. And by the time it’s over, you’re grateful for the opportunity to watch Laurent literally act her way out of a bag. 

In some ways, the film works better as a thought experiment than as a story. Which underappreciated performer would you love to watch thespianize in a stationary position just to see what happens? Off the dome: would watch “Oxygen 2” starring Molly Shannon.

'Oxygen'

French with English subtitles

Grade: B-

Starring: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi

Director: Alexandre Aja

Rated: TV-14 for fear, language and smoking.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Watch: Streaming on Netflix