It all seems so simple at the start. Netflix’s new sci-fi survival thriller Oxygen begins with a straightforward “what if?” — what if you woke up in a coffin-sized box, with no memory of who you are, and had to find a way out before you ran out of oxygen? But despite what the title might have you think, it’s not a simple survival story that ends up being the crux of the film, it’s the forgotten memories and what they mean, not just for the survival of Mélanie Laurent’s character, but for the future of all mankind.
With Oxygen now streaming on Netflix, I recently had the opportunity to speak with writer-director Alexandre Aja and spoke with him about the film’s twists and turns, and what to make of that final scene. But before we dive into his spoiler-filled thoughts on that ending, here’s a recap of what happens in the film. (If you don’t need a recap, you can easily skip to what Aja said by scrolling down to the block quotes below.)
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Oxygen.]
Oxygen stars Laurent as a woman who wakes up in a hell of a predicament — she’s trapped in a high-tech medical pod that’s rapidly running out of oxygen and it just won’t open up. Aja, who’s known for standout survival horror films like High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, and most recently, the 2019 gem Crawl, mines the situation for all its worth, stretching her claustrophobic fight for her life into a pulse-pounding thriller that defies the limitations of its micro-setting. But he doesn’t just make her fight for survival feel big. The screenplay by Christie LeBlanc (which Aja tweaked and translated into French) expands the scope in a massive way.
It turns out she’s not just fighting for her life, she’s part of a much bigger battle to save the human race. Working with the pod’s A.I. helper M.I.L.O. (voiced by Mathieu Amalric), Laurent’s character quickly deduces she’s a renowned but controversial scientist named Elizabeth Hansen (AKA Liz), and through flashes of memory, she discovers she was married to a man named Leo (Malik Zidi), who died from a mysterious disease. She also remembers a lot of test rats, whose bleak fate constantly calls to mind her isolated predicament as she tries to find a way out of this impossible mental maze.
With her oxygen supply depleting by the moment, she manages to make contact with a police officer who promises help is on the way, but constantly contradicts himself. Except on one matter: She absolutely cannot open the medical pod or she will die instantly. Looking for answers on what happened to Leo, she also makes contact with an older woman who refuses to speak with her.
Putting more of the pieces together, she learns that she’s a cryogenicist who spent her life researching how to keep the human body alive in a cryo-chamber, while Leo was researching some kind of winged transport device inspired by a falling leaf. Turns out those research projects are connected, and for good reason; humanity is dying on Earth and won’t survive more than two generations.
After finally making contact with the older woman, Liz learns a lot of new information in short order. The first major twist is the revelation that she’s in space! That’s why the officer — in fact, not a police officer but a government higher-up — was so insistent she couldn’t open her pod. But that also means everything else he said was a lie. There’s no help on the way. The voice on the other end of the line informs her that his sole goal was to keep her distracted so that she wouldn’t learn the truth: She’s floating through space as part of a mission to save the human race by colonizing another planet, Wolf 1061c (a real planet that lies nearly 14 lightyears away from Earth), and as the film explains, half of the planet is always dark, and the habitable half is always light. If she discovered the truth and communicated it to the rest of the world before she was out of comms range, panic and chaos would ensue.
And Liz isn’t alone on her mission — she quickly learns that she’s in one of countless pods on board, each inhabited by another person. The spaceship carrying them to Wolf 1061c was only at the beginning of its journey, about 12 years in, when it was hit by an asteroid, destroying many of the pods and the people inside them. That’s how Liz got woken up in a damaged pod, rapidly losing oxygen. That’s good news because it means she can go back into cryo-sleep, but there’s a catch: She has to do it before her oxygen levels deplete to 2 percent or she won’t have the required oxygen levels to survive the awakening process.
But that’s not all! Turns out that Liz is not Liz — or at least, not the version she thought she was. She’s a clone. The version of Liz we met in the pod is actually a clone of Dr. Elizabeth Hansen on Earth, and that older version of Dr. Elizabeth Hansen is the woman who Liz was talking to on the phone. She wasn’t just studying how to keep humans alive in extended cryogenic sleep, she was also experimenting with memory transfer. Remember the rats? Dr. Hansen’s first wave of research focused on implanting the memory from rats who made it through the maze into less-experienced rats, in order to see if they carried the same knowledge. Turns out the research worked because Liz has actually been remembering Dr. Hansen’s life, including her love for Leo.
Which leads us to the last big twist. Leo is also aboard the spaceship in one of the pods, but he too is a clone, made evident by the missing scar on his face. Dodging tranquilizer after tranquilizer, and even attempted euthanasia, Liz nearly runs out of the minimum amount of oxygen she needs to survive waking from her next round of cryosleep, but at the last possible minute, she realizes she can divert oxygen from the damaged pods carrying already deceased people.
Just in the knick of time, we watch Liz drift back into cryogenic sleep, oxygen rushing back into her pod. The scene fades and we see the ship rounding Wolf 1061c — turns out the transport design Leo was researching was the ship’s design — and in the film’s final moments, we see Liz and Leo sharing a tender moment on an idyllic beach. Fin.
But given how early they were in the journey when the asteroid hit and the fact that they still have decades of travel left to go, are we seeing a happy ending or Liz’s dream of a happy ending? When we spoke with Aja, he wasn’t ready to confirm or deny if the final moments were real, but he certainly spoke about them with a lot of optimism. And romance.
For Aja, the rat imagery was a key component of Liz’s journey, not just as a means of framing her predicament, but how Dr. Hansen’s experiments on them presented the possibility of life after death.
The rat was definitely something that I added in the script… one of the last changes we did on the script. For me, that rat allegory was the most important element to speak about the character and talk about how she’s trapped in that mental maze. And at the end, I wanted this very big-scale opening… the movie at the end of the day is a movie also about life after death, somehow, because the real characters are dead at that point, but still, somehow they survive somewhere else. It was that kind of reflection and I wanted to actually feel that opening to the whole movie, where you start in that very narrow pass with that lab rat finding his way, and then going with [Melanie’s character] waking up in that shroud and tearing it off like a cocoon, and then by the end going back there, but maybe with a positive outcome to that whole journey.
And it wasn’t just positive because of the chance for survival, Aja also saw the ending as the culmination of Liz and Leo’s love story. In the original version of the script, which earned a spot on the 2016 Blacklist, the film ended with a cut to black after Liz went back into cryo-sleep. I asked Aja what motivated him to change the ending and include that final scene on Wolf 1061c, and here’s what he said:
What moved me and got us all very involved and excited for the project was that kind of romantic side of it. It’s also a love story. It’s a love story that goes beyond death. And the reality of the element, that actual planet that exists, that actually doesn’t turn and has this kind of permanent sunset, and that cold and hot side, I thought that all this was so romantic in a very — it sounds very cheesy out of context, but in that conclusion of that journey for the characters. I don’t know if it’s in her head, if it’s real, I want to believe it’s real. I feel – I want to believe it’s real. I want to believe that they managed to find that new place to start.
Now that they’re on a new planet, on a mission to start a better future for the human race, could there possibly be a sequel on the way? Probably not. “I don’t think it was conceived as a potential franchise with a sequel,” Aja said, but he did have some interesting thoughts on what a potential sequel could be about.
I don’t know if a sequel would be how are they going to build a new society that will not destroy everything right away and maybe try to do things in a better, more soulful way.
Oxygen is now streaming on Netflix.
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