Ocean’s 8 is an abundantly entertaining heist movie, drawing on the unique personalities of each actress and celebrity to fit into a group of oddballs qualified in their own way to accomplish the theft of a $150mn necklace.
A spinoff by nature is derived from an original source material, which in this case is Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s franchise starring George Clooney as the titular character. Ocean’s 8 directly draws connections to the Soderbergh trilogy, focusing on deceased criminal Danny Ocean’s sister, Debbie, played by Hollywood heavyweight Sandra Bullock.
Ocean’s 8 would have been a perfect standalone film with an all-female ensemble cast, but by tying itself to the previous movies through its characters, narrative, and plot structure, it forces Debbie Ocean to live in the shadow of her dead brother.
Back in 2001 when Danny Ocean was about to rob three casinos owned by Andy Garcia’s Terry Benedict, he’s released from prison on parole. He shows a faux-contrition for his crimes, passing it off as a “self-destructive pattern” brought on by his failing marriage.
In Ocean’s 8, we start with Danny’s sister at a hearing as well, displaying her own form of contrition for her actions, excusing her behavior as the result of unfortunate circumstances, having a criminal brother and a fraudulent ex-boyfriend, one that landed her in jail.
Both siblings are convicted. Both siblings start at the bottom, walking out of prison, ready to commit grandiose workings of their creative imaginations. With these near-identical setups, the mind of any viewer will naturally leap to compare Debbie to her brother, the one who robbed three casinos in one night. Whatever you do from there on out, it’s going to be a tall order. Family legacies can be an albatross around your neck sometimes. Or most of the time.
Turning Point 1: The Opportunity
While Danny and Debbie get accustomed to life outside prison, they begin to plant the seeds for their next big move. Central to both their plans is a right hand. For the brother, it comes in the form of Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), and for the sister, it’s Lou, last name unknown (Cate Blanchett). Both these associates find themselves preoccupied with mundane hustles, whether that’s teaching celebrities to play cards or watering down vodka. The mere thought of a heist gets their libidos going, so when they’re presented with ones involving significant risks and paydays, they just can’t sit on the sidelines. Lou is lured in by Debbie’s plan to rob a Cartier necklace at Met Gala, and Rusty by Danny’s audacity to steal not one, but three casinos.
So far, the story beats align almost identically. A convicted criminal gets out on parole. He/She then proceeds to reconnect with their most trusted partner, persuading them to join a grand scheme of deviousness.
Stage 2: The New Situation
Since these aren’t run-of-the-mill operations, an intelligent and ambitious crew needs to be assembled. In both Ocean’s 8 and 11, this next stage is characterized by a recruitment process. We watch the working partners observe and eventually hire an array of people to handle surveillance, construction, business, explosives, and so on. Granted, Debbie’s crew is more streamlined since it didn’t involve breaking into a vault. What’s wildly different about her plan is that it lures the prized possession, a Cartier necklace called the Toussaint, out of the vault, while her brother’s idea is more bombastic and involves getting the prize by blowing up the vault.
In comparison, Debbie’s idea seems more ingenious as it’s minimally destructive compared to Danny’s, but the simplicity of the overall strategy demeans the achievement at the end. After all, the actual theft in Eight involves unclasping the Toussaint from a woman’s neck while she throws up.
Getting back to the topic of the crew, the siblings find their heists’ success resting on the recruitment of one key figure. Danny’s plan is costlier, so he needs a financier, appearing as Reuben Tishkoff, a former casino owner who considers Terry Benedict to be a primary rival. For Debbie, this central character is designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), an indebted has-been keen to get back into the limelight and settle her debts. Rose is the tool they’ll use to serenade actress Daphne Kluger, co-hosting the Met Gala, into wearing the locked up Cartier necklace and when it comes time for the grand old party, the crew will swipe it off her when it’s opportune.
Turning Point 2: Change of Plans
At the end of the first act in both films, there’ a push by Debbie and Danny to initiate the plan. This comes right after they gather their eclectic group members and divulge the specifics of their heists with meticulous detail. What are we stealing? How are we stealing it? What’s the escape plan? A myriad of questions gets answered within the span of a few minutes.
When our lead characters divulge their plans to these associates, the raw abstract desire of a theft becomes a specific plan requiring the crew to commit wholeheartedly. While the commitment process is structurally the same, it’s more tense and creative in Ocean’s 11. The crew gathers in Reuben’s mansion, conversing with each other around his pool. Danny invites them into the house, but not before saying that this endeavor is“highly lucrative and highly dangerous.” If someone can’t stomach the risks of the operation, they’re free to leave, no hard feelings. Everyone goes inside
In 8, Debbie makes sure everyone understands that they’re infiltrating the world’s most exclusive party and that they intend to steal a $150mn necklace, but she didn’t lay down an ultimatum before everyone gathered. The crew is surprised and confused once she discusses the details, but they don’t object, or voice their concerns. They don’t commit before knowing the plan, which they do in 11. There’s a feeling that because they do so in 11, some of these guys are going in without a clear mind, Saul being one of them. Both films handle this turning point with characters committing to a plan but in one there’s a little more fear and anxiety.
Point of No Return
The wheels are set in motion with each heist, with the crew getting various aspects of the plan in place. We could look at several points of no return for both movies such as the moment the teams set foot into enemy territory on the day of the thefts.
But the true midpoint climax happens when each Ocean’s actual motivations for the heist come out, and they both involve a former significant other. Initially, the siblings convince Rusty and Lou through some variation of “because I’m good at it.” In reality, though, Danny and Debbie are fueled by emotions centered on their significant others.
Danny’s estranged wife is dating Terry Benedict, the casino mogul he plans to rob. Debbie intends to pin the theft of the Toussaint on her ex-boyfriend, Claude Becker, an art dealer whose bungled fraud scheme incriminated her and sent her to prison. The underlying emotions are different. Danny’s comes from a place of love, realizing that Benedict’s center of the universe is dollar signs as opposed to Tess. Debbie’s comes from a place of revenge and justice, to punish the man who put her behind bars for four years.
Rusty and Lou both confront their leaders with the same attack. You’re not in the right state of mind to go through with this when you’re emotional. When you’re in love. When you’re in anger. In Eleven, Rusty makes a false show of kicking Danny off the team as part of the plan while this doesn’t happen in Eight. Either way, both groups move forward knowing there’s an added layer of complication now, one that’s about emotion. The actual point of no return is an emotional state centered on this other person that they love in one case and hate in the other. There’s no going back for Debbie and Danny from how they feel. The plan will go on. The things we do for love as they say. And hate along with it if there’s a fine line separating the two.
Complications, Higher Stakes, The Final Push
By and large both Ocean’s films present a portrait of inevitability, the inevitable outcome being that our criminal masterminds will get the job done. Yes, both teams do face complications, but they’re resolved swiftly and expertly.
Most of the complications and stakes aren’t felt by the characters, but they’re felt by the audience because the director chose to hide a particular viewpoint from us. This is especially true with Ocean’s 11 but not 8.
In 11, there are several points of attack where Danny’s plan looks to go awry. Firstly, we’re made to believe that Rusty kicks Danny off the team because of his secondary motivations, trying to get to Benedict through Tess, his estranged wife. We think Danny hanging around in the periphery even when he’s not supposed to be is a liability, but it was all part of the plan. He’s the diversion to distract Benedict from the heist. A lovelorn husband seeking reconciliation with your current girlfriend. Benedict has to keep an eye on that.
We also think Carl Reiner’s Saul is about to head into the lion’s den, the security control room, with an impending heart attack, dooming the theft along the way. But his eventual collapse is the perfect distraction for Eddie Jemison’s Livingston to switch the camera feeds. We think the arrival of the SWAT team will spell the crew’s downfall, only to realize that the SWAT Team itself was comprised of the heist members. Soderbergh’s technique to raise the stakes and complications was to keep us blindfolded, to distract us by fixing our attention on a limited viewpoint.
On top of tension created through narrowing audience perspectives, we get actual drama in multiple instances. When Amazing Yen’s hand gets caught in the vault door, just as Danny’s about to blow it open, there’s a comedic jolt coupled with the realization that he could indeed get his arm ripped off. And when Tess finds out that Danny’s running a job on her boyfriend’s casino, we don’t know if she’s going to allow it or be a thorn in everyone’s side. She presents an ambivalence toward Danny, especially when he says goodbye to her earlier, so there’s potential for her to choose either man in her life, new and old.
In Ocean’s 8, on the other hand, everything feels like a breeze.
In 8, the only heart-pounder would have been when a security guard was about to open the bathroom door while Amita, the jewelry expert played by Mindy Kaling, was disassembling the Toussaint. James Corden’s fraud investigator, introduced as a late hurdle to the clan, is somewhat of a pushover, opting to go along with the path Debbie intends to take by framing Claude. He knows she’s playing a grand plan, but chooses not to unravel it.
The other dramatic climax could have been the revelation that Daphne Kluger was aware of the jewelry theft. But it plays off as an audience surprise followed by her seamless integration into the team, thus forming the eighth person in Ocean’s 8. Her initiation in the nth hour doesn’t create any conflict. It creates a fun surprise with the other team members questioning how she discovered the planned theft and what her intentions are, mostly through the lens of curiosity, but there’s no fear or anxiety about her costing everyone their stash. The conflict and resolution are swift and explosive rather than slow and simmering.
It Comes Down to the Villain
Terry Benedict, early on in the first act, is described as a wealthy magnate who’s infinitely vengeful by Reuben Tishkoff. Go after him, and he’ll bury you and anyone close to you. He has money at his disposal and an army of henchmen ready to rough up, if not torture Danny and his crew. We know he’s capable of bringing down the hammer.
Ocean’s 8 instead opts to play with an ensemble of villains. Cartier, their security personnel, and Claude Becker. Becker is the ultimate antagonist for sending her to prison, but he’s not actively involved in thwarting Debbie’s plan or defending himself against her job of framing him. He’s a passive observer and hardly reacts. He sits by the ropes and lets his ex-girlfriend pummel him to the ground.
Ocean’s 11 had multiple strands of tension and conflict running through it while 8 opted for a breezier path to the finish line.
Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t
The spinoff does make some pivotal narrative choices to distinguish itself from previous entries. There’s the choice of event, the prized possession, and the decision to get said prized possession out to them rather than them going to it. Debbie’s underlying motivations were fueled by revenge and Danny’s by love.
But the setups and significant plot points run parallel to each other, making comparisons between the two, both similarities and differences, easier to identify. When we do make these distinctions, it’s hard not to say that Ocean’s 11 did it better, especially in the department of dramatic tension.
The execution of the crime in Ocean’s 8 is thrilling to watch. Its brilliance is in its simplicity. Exploiting a camera blind spot. Getting the targeted celebrity to a place where there are no cameras. All these little decisions emphasized calm and composure rather than chaos and calamity. But aligning closely with Ocean’s 11 hinders its merits to some degree. This installment is then best looked at as a more lighthearted rendition of the heist franchise, and perhaps an appetizer before the entree that is to arrive.