Credit: Netflix

A film literally made from thin air, the French thriller Oxygen (on Netflix starting Friday) is a neat little sci-fi nightmare; a cool-toned exercise in claustrophobia that nearly pulls off the innate improbabilities of its high-concept nonsense. It will also make you almost absurdly grateful for the ordinary limits of your own living space when Mélanie Laurent's unnamed protagonist awakens, thrashing and terrified, to a cryogenic chamber in which she's been mysteriously, meticulously mummified.

Disorienting flashbacks — a gasping lab rat, a hospital gurney — are the only hints she has of how she got here; the AI voice of the chamber's operating system (Sound of Metal's Mathieu Amalric), her lone point of "human" contact. The news, as he delivers it serenely, is not good: Her oxygen supply is damaged and depleting fast; would she care for a sedative? Non, merci. And so begins the race to find out who and where she is. (The why and how will have to wait.)

Director Alexandre Aja (Crawl, The Hills Have Eyes) comes from horror, and he brings a clammy urgency that overrides some of the script's sillier turns. (The eventual Inception logic of it all is perhaps better left unscrutinized.) The casting, too, took a scenic route; at different points, both Anne Hathaway and Noomi Rapace were reportedly slated to star.

A more mainstream name or an English-language script no doubt would have granted the movie a wider kind of appeal, subtitles still being the low-bar bugaboo of casual viewers. But Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, Beginners), long a César-winning star in her native France, makes the role entirely her own: Furious, determined, and desperately human, she breathes indomitable life into every frame. Grade: B

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