Review: Oceans 8

Oceans 8 (2018)
Dir: Gary Ross

The recipe for success seems simple enough, take a beloved franchise, assemble a stellar ensemble female cast headed up by an Oscar-winner, how could that possibly not work? Apparently very easily if it’s lacking the key ingredient.

Danny Ocean’s sister Debbie (Sandra Bullock) plans her own major heist, assembling a team of skilled women (including Mindy Kailing, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna and Awkwafina) to steal a valuable diamond from the glamourous MET gala.

I absolutely love heist movies! There’s something so satisfying about watching things develop and how the heisters manage to pull it off, often despite things going wrong or being pursued, being drawn in as a silent member of their ensemble increasingly invested in their success. A perfect example of the genre at its best, Soderbergh’s ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ memorably does all this, with a twist being revealed to the audience at the end that cleverly brings everything together.

Sadly, I think this film’s biggest flaw is that unlike its predecessors it lacks all that. I didn’t feel drawn into the complexities of the heist, nor was I surprised by the resolution. The actors are excellent, some of their characters are interesting, but the central heist isn’t even fractionally as twisty or clever as it needs to be to compensate for the high expectations, raised by the preceding three films of this franchise, that we’ll be watching geniuses pulling off an incredible heist.

While the MET gala seems like a great setting, in the context of this film that’s already packed with A-list actresses it struggles with a tricky issue of confusing the lines between reality and fiction. When do characters stop being themselves while hobnobbing with their contemporaries who are appearing as themselves in cameo roles? True, ‘Oceans 12’ took a similar idea and had some fun with Julia Roberts, but this doesn’t even try to do something like that. Maybe as it’s a hard trick to pull off twice, in reality, and in a screenplay, they couldn’t, but I imagine it would’ve been funnier if Anne Hathaway’s character was just a version of Anne Hathaway who gets her kicks from stealing stuff and wants to pull off a heist for the pure thrill of it. Either way, the film spends too long star-gazing and the longer we’re thinking about it, the blurrier that line becomes.

Director Gary Ross has had some great success with films like ‘Pleasantville’ and ‘The Hunger Games’ but is doing a lacklustre imitation of (credited as a producer in little more than name only it seems) Steven Soderberg’s ‘Oceans’ style, that doesn’t add anything new to the franchise and is missing the zing that made those films, though with diminishing returns, inescapably enjoyable. Soderbergh was a producer on this, but I doubt it was in little more than name only, I can’t see that he helped bring much to this extension of the very successful franchise he built and up to this film had directed each instalment of.

Financially the film performed perfectly respectably at the U.S. box office, interestingly doing better than either ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ or ‘Ocean’s Thirteen’, taking over $140m. Internationally however it was another story, the film didn’t do very well at all, leaving it with worldwide total box office numbers less than any other film in the franchise by a significant chunk. Writing this now, more than two years after the film’s release I’m hearing nothing to suggest that the obviously intended sequel ‘Ocean’s 9’ is even in pre-production, so it’s ended up being little more than a failed experiment in what it takes to branch off or even gender-swap a successful franchise.

If this had just been any original heist movie unrelated to a successful series the expectations would be significantly lower, with no need to squeeze some nods in there to other, far more beloved films, nor the need to evoke a similar emotional response to the rest of the franchise. They set their own bar really high, then failed to reach it. Some of the cast suggested that the lukewarm critical response was a matter of gender, but if this was a really satisfying, great example of a heist movie, that suggestion wouldn’t even have needed to be made as I think it would’ve done better at the box office. I couldn’t care less if the leads are male, female, or animals (‘Over The Hedge’ is what pops to mind, frustratingly better than this), I just want to vicariously live as a heisting mastermind, give me the thrill of that and I’m happy.

This has recently been added to Netflix in the UK (and possibly other places too), it’s a perfectly decent couple of hours entertainment but won’t be making many lists of top heist movies in the future. It’s an interesting attempt at breathing new life into an expended franchise, but ultimately adds nothing special to distinguish it from what’s come before or meaningfully build on the foundations it capitalises on. 

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