How 'Ocean's 8' Has Trouble Moving Beyond Its Past

Ocean's 8 Still 11 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
The film can't quite decide if it wants to tell its own story, or just rehash those told by George Clooney's gang.

[This story contains spoilers for Ocean's 8]

The first scene of Ocean’s 8 will ring familiar for any fans of the heist trilogy from the 2000s, even as it upends expectations. Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven opens with Daniel Ocean (George Clooney) in front of a parole board in New Jersey, lying through his teeth that he’s a changed man who will avoid the criminal path in the future. Ocean’s 8 begins with Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), Daniel’s sister, in front of another parole board in New Jersey, telling a similar lie. There’s only one notable twist: according to Debbie, Daniel Ocean is dead. Throughout all of Ocean’s 8, that surprise is about as far from the Ocean’s trilogy that the spinoff strays in its storytelling and its style.

Soderbergh is one of the great modern American auteurs, and his playful riff on movie stardom and the heist genre made all three Ocean’s films truly wonderful. (Yes, all three films. Ocean’s Twelve may have its detractors, but this writer is not one of them.) If there was any reason for concern with the female-led Ocean’s 8, it wasn’t in the gender-flipped premise or the star-studded cast; it was that Soderbergh was only a producer, handing over directorial duties to his colleague, Gary Ross. Ross, of Big, Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, is a journeyman director with less of a recognizable style, especially when compared with Soderbergh. But both the script, co-written by Ross and Olivia Milch, and his direction leans very hard into the Ocean’s trilogy; for better or worse, this film is clearly cut from the same cloth.

Though some of the setup of this new film is different — Debbie gets a female crew together to steal a highly valued diamond necklace at the Met Gala in New York City — a lot of the broad strokes are very recognizable to the Ocean’s franchise. Where Danny Ocean’s right-hand partner was the laconic Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), Debbie’s closest confidante is the similarly dry Lou (Cate Blanchett), who’s seduced back into the criminal lifestyle because of boredom with her current gig. Midway through the film, it becomes clear that Debbie’s idea for a heist is simultaneously a plan to take down an ex of hers (Richard Armitage). This leads to Lou chewing out Debbie for taking such a risk; fans of Ocean’s Eleven will likely unavoidably see this as an inverse of when Rusty realized Danny was stealing from three Las Vegas casinos in part to regain the love of his ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts), and got into a similar argument.

On one hand, it’s commendable that Ocean’s 8, down to the slick presentation of the Met Gala and the retro-styled cinematography by Eigil Bryld, echoes Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films. Ross is a decent enough filmmaker, but he didn’t seem like a natural enough fit for this story. (There’s also the niggling issue that a female-driven heist movie probably didn’t need to be directed by a man, but that’s a different conversation.) The core cast, also including Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling and Rihanna, have a charming rapport when they share the screen; arguably, the best scenes in Ocean’s 8 are those where the criminals are bouncing off each other, as opposed to their various marks.

But the flip side is that Ocean’s 8 feels very much like it lives in the shadow of its predecessors. Even the cameo appearances have this nagging feeling: Elliott Gould shows up as Reuben Tishkoff, paying his respects at Danny’s grave while also discouraging Debbie from pursuing the heist. And in the finale, Shaobo Qin returns as The Amazing Yen for a bit of acrobatic trickery that feels like a slight nod to the Ocean’s Twelve setpiece where Vincent Cassel’s Eurotrash bad guy danced his way through a series of laser beams to steal a Faberge egg. There’s no real way that Ocean’s 8 could have avoided connecting to the Ocean’s trilogy, but this film isn’t able to decide if it wants to tell its own story, or just rehash those older ones.

In the last scene of Ocean’s 8, a triumphant Debbie returns to Danny’s grave. Whenever Danny gets mentioned in the film, there’s always the sense that he might not be dead as much as faking it for some reason. (Perhaps it’s because, for all the suspense engendered in the original trilogy, death didn’t visit our antiheroes too often.) The way the final moment here is staged, it seems painfully obvious that George Clooney might pop out behind Bullock for a surprise cameo. And yet, Debbie gets the last line: “You would have loved it.” It’s unexpectedly abrupt, and an unintentional meta-comment on how Ocean’s 8 seems designed to prove that heist movies don’t need to be male-dominated. That’s true, and while kudos go to Ross for making a film of a relative piece with Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, this blend of recognizable elements only serves as a reminder that Soderbergh’s take was more successful.