Even a cursory glance at Oxygen (2021) suggests it’s a product of the pandemic, but in fact it was in development long before COVID-19 came along. Still, its small cast and bottle-show trappings make it seem like a product of social-distancing circumstance. Directed by Alexandre Aja, Oxygen begins with an unnamed woman (Mélanie Laurent) awakening in an enclosed, high-tech space. She has total amnesia, but her claustrophobic confinement comes with a computer intelligence named M.I.L.O. (Mathieu Amalric). M.I.L.O.’s cooperation is frustrating, but eventually she manages to ask the right questions and take the right actions to jog her memory. Coming to understand her predicament, in a series of escalating shocks, she works frantically to save herself as the air in her pod slowly depletes.
Oxygen requires patience, its science fictional mystery building entirely through conversationa and limited context. Doing most of the heavy lifting is Laurent’s impressive, primarily solo performance, as she fights through panic and anxiety to make sense of her situation. Aja does his best to keep her confinement visually interesting, using pans, cuts, and angles to define the pod’s parameters and occasionally breaking up the monotony with flashbacks as the hero’s memory returns. But visual flare is rather secondary to the puzzle-solving dialogue and Laurent’s performance. Incrementally it builds to an ultimate revelation of what’s actually happening, a scenario that stacks familiar tropes atop one another in a more or less effective manner. It’s no masterpiece, and likely to be more conceptually surprising to non-SF fans than veterans. But with the aid of Laurent’s committed performance, it’s an reasonably intriguing one-set hard SF tale.