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Mélanie Laurent lying back in her cryo-pod, with electrical leads attached to her head, in Oxygen Photo: Shanna Besson /Netflix

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The claustrophobic Oxygen tests a new direction for Netflix’s sci-fi strategy

But it’s strikingly similar to other recent quarantine and small-scale science fiction

In a new Netflix thriller, a female scientist is stuck in a small, contained environment, and must figure out how to survive as oxygen levels become dangerously low. If this sounds familiar, it’s possible that you’ve recently watched Stowaway, the hit Netflix movie starring Anna Kendrick, the latest big-name performer to explore psychological and moral complexities in outer space. But it’s also the basic description for Oxygen, a second constricted-space, low-oxygen thriller on Netflix — and yet another instance of the streaming service colonizing territory formerly occupied by traditional studio releases.

Oxygen is less of a straight astronaut story than either Stowaway or last winter’s Netflix offering The Midnight Sky. Much of this French film is set inside a room so tiny that the woman (Mélanie Laurent) it contains can barely sit up, much less rise to her feet and walk around. It’s an ante-upping formal challenge for director Alexandre Aja, following his satisfying limited-location thriller Crawl, where a young woman squared off against some mean alligators in a flooded house. At first, the woman at the center of Oxygen doesn’t know any more about the capsule she’s in than the audience does. She wakes up disoriented and terrified, with only flashes of memories indicating who she is, or why she’s been wrapped in some kind of futuristic, breathable plastic. (Initially, the covered jut of her jaw looks like the silhouette of the xenomorph from Alien.) She’s been in cryo-sleep for an undetermined amount of time, and memory is slow to return.

Mélanie Laurent reaches her hand toward a wounded, dirty man on the other side of a sheet of plastic in Oxygen Photo: Shanna Besson/Netflix

Her immediate challenge, though, is frighteningly clear: The oxygen levels in her pod are at about 35% and dropping, and she must fumble her way through a voice-activated computer interface whose solutions — sedatives, mostly — are offered with menacing pushiness. Her capsule is locked, and though she’s able to figure out how to make outgoing phone calls, reception is fuzzy, and finding the right contact information involves a lot of trial and error. The logistics of Oxygen are more sci-fi than the human drama of Stowaway. In the latter, much of the dialogue addresses the moral and ethical dilemmas in attempting to save both individual lives and a crucially important mission. In Oxygen, Laurent repeatedly has to dodge an automated hypodermic needle, advancing on her like an aggressive snake.

Oxygen is a cheesy exploitation thriller, to some degree, with the catch that Aja has become skilled at locating both human interest and immediacy within the confines of cheesy exploitation thrillers. As in Crawl, he knows when to lean on his central performer, and tells a lot of his story through Laurent’s acting, which balances intelligence and resourcefulness with what the MTV Movie Awards have sometimes referred to as the “scared as shit” performance. Oxygen isn’t a horror film, but Aja’s horror background seems to goad him into tightening the suspense, even flirting with moments of body horror when Lauren has to fiddle with the tubes that have kept her character in cryo, and now threaten to override her decisions if she can’t take control of the computer.

Oxygen’s biggest sci-fi ideas are largely cribbed from other, more thoughtful movies, and it takes a while before the eventually twisty story starts offering up genuine surprises. (The first big story turn, regarding the location of Laurent’s pod-like structure, is something many viewers will assume from the opening.) But Aja’s film was shot during the pandemic in summer of 2020, and there are faint echoes of quarantine life in watching someone try to figure out their identity by sifting through digital photos, like someone scrolling through their Instagram feed to remember their own Before Times.

Oxygen also feels like a pandemic movie by virtue of premiering on Netflix, a service whose capacity to echo our tastes and cinematic experiences back to us has seemingly increased over the past year. Both Oxygen and Stowaway closely resemble movies that have played in theatrical release, whether it’s the white-knuckle peril of Gravity or Crawl, the claustrophobia of Buried or Phone Booth, or the careful problem-solving of The Martian. This isn’t always a given with Netflix originals, some of which inevitably feel more like TV movies than refugees from movie theaters. Oxygen is certainly a cut above in that department; its resemblance to past movies also makes this one a bit uncanny.

Mélanie Laurent seen through a ring of blue light in her cryo-pod in Oxygen Photo: Shanna Besson/Netflix

It isn’t unusual for mainstream movies to reflect the zeitgeist, whether in intentional ways or not. In that sense, Oxygen, Stowaway, and The Midnight Sky all belong on the recent spectrum of Hollywood movies that explore space travel, astronaut peril, and the possibility of colonization, with COVID-19 providing a new lens for their isolated, repopulation-centric stories. Yet these Netflix thrillers also feel like they’ve been shrunk down and recalibrated for a particular kind of home-viewing experience, like they exist in their own enclosed space.

In some ways, this is a promising development; Oxygen is small-scale sci-fi, with plentiful thrills and minimal bombast, as much a locked-pod mystery as anything else. Taken alongside Stowaway, through, and in such close proximity, the films feel like an algorithm A/B testing similar stories, scanning the audience for optimal response that will inform future astronaut narratives.

That’s where the cheaper thrills and intrigue of Oxygen give it an advantage. While Stowaway’s attempts at thoughtfulness add up to a movie that compellingly imitates other space narratives without finding its own voice, Aja’s delight in putting viewers through a wringer feels honest. So does his embrace of his movie’s (and distributor’s) limitations, where the vastness of future technology must be adaptable to an unspectacular 40-inch TV screen. At times, watching Oxygen simulates that futuristic confine all too well. Breathable air may run out, but content will keep churning forever.

Oxygen is now streaming on Netflix.

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