(Photo by Shanna Besson, © Netflix)
Modern master of horror Alexandre Aja – who counts among his nightmare-inducing credits films like The Hill Have Eyes, Crawl, and Piranha 3D – is getting cerebral in his latest film – and claustrophobic. Oxygen, a long-in-development sci-fi thriller from France, sees a young woman (Melanie Laurent) waking up in a strange, futuristic-seeming medical cryo unit, trapped and alone with no idea how she got there or who she is, and oxygen in short supply. Her only company and source of information is the pod’s computer, voiced by iconic French actor Mathieu Amalric; like most Artificial Intelligence in movies with a premise like this, he cannot be trusted.
Ahead of the movie’s release on Netflix, Aja shared his five favorite films with Rotten Tomatoes, and spoke about his passion for science-fiction, the challenges of shooting in a confined space – and making the material compelling – and his desire to get back to his brutal career beginnings.
The Shining (1980)
I’m going to start with the most obvious for me: The Shining. For one reason, it was my first real cinematic shock when I was a kid. I accidentally watched The Shining at age seven and it was the most traumatic experience and maybe one of the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing today. Then, year after year, it’s that movie that I can watch again and again. I’m obsessed with every shot that they cut, every bit of dialogue, every emotion. I think there is a perfection for me in this movie.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: Is there a particular scene or shot that you love the most?
Yes, for me it’s that moment when Jack is entering the ballroom and sitting at the bar and everything is empty. The camera turns around after he says he would like a glass of… I don’t remember, some beer or whatever, and the bartender, Lloyd, appears. It’s that Faustian deal that I think is the most beautifully made and elegant deal with the devil that has ever existed on camera or even in literature. In that one scene, everything is said from the reason why Stephen King wrote the book in the first place – because he wanted to kill his son, because he drew on the manuscript – to everything in that scene; what Jack is going through is talking about creation, talking about who we are as humans. It’s just that devilish figure that just watches over him. It’s just maybe one of the most beautiful scenes in cinema.
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
It’s very different but also something about creation, about Hollywood, about human nature, about the darkness of the spirit. For me, obviously there are so many amazing shots, from the first one to the last one, but for me, that ending, I remember the first time I discovered it – it’s just so insane and twisted. The addiction of fame. The addiction of that city. You know, I’m from Europe and there is a fascination for America but also for Hollywood. You know, I’m working there but that movie has this kind of echo. You see that maybe this movie would have been completely different made by another American filmmaker and not someone coming from Europe. I think it delivers a really broad European view on what Hollywood means.
The whole Alien franchise! Can I say a franchise? The big one, the one that ends with Covenant – I was kind of blown away by it. I know that people might have some frustration and stuff [with that film], but I thought it was so crazy that he managed to close, to go back to the first one. That first film may be the best survival film of all. Her character, Ripley, for me is that one character that I always go back to in every movie. She represents everything I feel as a human being. You see a character that is not a superhero, that’s not a super human being, but is someone who managed to get that instinct to fight and keep fighting and find the resources to always stand again and defeat what is the most perfect enemy.
RT: It’s interesting you say that because when you look at the films you’ve made, particularly the last two, Crawl and Oxygen, you also have amazing women, strong and almost Ripley-esque, having to tap into that survival instinct. Do you think that Ripley had an impact on your choice in projects?
Yes. I mean I’m sure that when I did Crawl, beyond the character, obviously, that crawlspace for me was like somehow I was thinking about an alien spaceship. It is not, it’s just a crawlspace. There is always an exploration. I think the Alien fascination, growing up watching it, brought me to have a real fascination for mythology and especially the whole Minotaur and the maze, and that led me to a certain kind of movie where I really like to… You have that journey where you have to find the way out. Where you have to be with the character. In High Tension, the quest is to survive to the morning. In Crawl, it’s just survive the storm and get out of the house. There is always a maze that you have to escape from.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)
I mean, I could put Once Upon a Time in the West or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I feel that there is something visually so groundbreaking with Sergio Leone’s style and directing. Something that almost reaches perfection shot after shot, and the use of the music. I say this is one of the most surreal and at the same time hyper-real immersive cinema, if that can exist. Everything is hyper, everything is bigger, everything is kind of like a version of the West that I think never really existed. At the same time, it just gets to your gut and you really feel that you are sitting at that table. Then that long silence, with the shot going from extreme close-up to super wide, and bringing in with the music… I don’t know, there is something quite powerful, at least for me, in this one.
Let’s stay classic. Jaws: it’s obvious what effect it has had on my cinema. I think Jaws, at the same time, from the behind-the-scenes, from the creativeness that’s behind-the-scenes, it’s almost like a cautionary tale for every filmmaker. Just the perfection of the directing… I could have said Raiders of the Lost Ark as well, I could have talked about E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I mean: Kubrick and Spielberg. I can never stop being surprised by where he finds a way to put his camera, where he finds a way to tell the story – from his storytelling to his use of every tool in the toolbox to create the perfect grammatical syntax of images. So Jaws is maybe like the one, the first perfect one, from a very long list of masterpieces.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: When you were talking about where to place the camera, I thought, that’s a good segue into asking about Oxygen because you have a single location here, and it’s a tight location. In Crawl, at least you had the whole area under the house, right? Here you have just this tight pod that’s essentially as big as Melanie. What was the greatest challenge of shooting in what appears to be a tiny space – and keeping things interesting for the audience?
Alexandre Aja: So I think the biggest challenge was obvious, because it was a very small cryo unit, almost like the size of a coffin. We took that challenge and we turned it into, I think, an advantage. I realized early on in the script that I had an obvious continuity of locations in that pod and I had a continuity of character with her, with Melanie, who was in every single shot and was so fun to direct, and who is carrying the emotion. So I thought about this as, okay, I’m going to in fact do something that I never even think about doing in other movies. I’m going to list down on a piece of paper all the different styles of directing, styles of framing, styles of effects, of types of lenses, of types of gadgets…
In fact, that kind of continuity with her and the location gave me the opportunity of going completely in different places scene after scene. So I avoid repeating myself and, most important, ensure that the audience doesn’t get bored of the same location. Also, not only to avoid repeating myself, but also trying to underline in better ways every single emotion. I think in another movie, if you do that, it becomes like a very bad taste or bad style, because you will just get out of the experience and you stop watching because you will see the camera movement every time. But because we had that perfect storytelling inside the box, I don’t think that you feel it. Then the camera becomes more like something that comes to underline every feeling or every new obstacle or nightmare that she’s going through.
(Photo by Shanna Besson, © Netflix)
RT: It’s interesting too that you mention Spielberg and Kubrick in your film selections, because watching this, just design-wise and also in some of the framing, I couldn’t help thinking of the Precogs in Minority Report and the tentacle things in War of the Worlds. And then obviously there’s the voice of HAL 9000. Were they direct influences on you?
Aja: I love science-fiction, and grew up reading a lot. I still read a lot of science-fiction, I’m watching a lot of science-fiction. I unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity until this movie to work on a science-fiction movie. I did develop many of them that either didn’t get made or will get made at some point – I hope. But yes, all the references that you were talking about, they all were in my mind. Of course, when you read a script and you have an AI talking, and it’s going to be a really important one, you cannot help but think about HAL 9000. And the same with Minority Report. I would say Philip K. Dick in general. There is not a real link between Oxygen and Philip K. Dick. But it was really in mind as I was doing it for a strange reason. But yes, I definitely love sci-fi. I think sci-fi at its best has a mission to think about the world we’re living in and what our position is within it and what we’re supposed to be doing or not. There is a very big “cautionary tale” aspect of sci-fi. I think it’s one of the things that really got me in and interested in the script when I read it the first time.
RT: Just finally, you mentioned sci-fi as a genre you love, but I think I fell in love with your work, and many others did, with your sort of hardcore slasher material like High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes. I loved Piranha 3D as well. I’m wondering: will you return to that genre? I think a lot of fans would love to see a really terrorizing horror film from you at some point in the future.
Aja: I have them. I have a lot of them! With the traffic jam created by the pandemic, suddenly I have no idea which one is going to get done first. I still love the more extreme survival experience as well. I have a couple [of those films] that I’m developing that I really want to make. Going back to Alien – Alien is the perfect mix between very smart and sophisticated sci-fi, and is a very brutal film as well.
Oxygen is available on Netflix from May 12, 2021.
Thumbnail image: Marc Piasecki/WireImage, © 20th Century Fox, © Warner Bros., © Universal