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Hollywood Is Only Hurting Itself by Playing Things Safe: How ‘Ocean’s 8’ and ‘Solo’ Prove Blockbusters Need Better Directors

Mediocrity will always be a safe bet in the movie business, but audiences are showing Hollywood the upside of bold choices and big gambles.

Ocean's 8 Rihanna

“Ocean’s 8”

Barry Wetcher

When “Ocean’s Eleven” hit theaters in December of 2001, just 12 days before the release of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the film industry was about to face an existential dilemma. Hollywood has always been caught in a tug-of-war between risk and reward, but the emergence of digital technology — and the supposed “death” of mid-budget movies that it precipitated — was just starting to exert a strong new pull.

As the star system faded, the studios grew less inclined to shoot for the moon. Budgets grew, ambition shrank, and franchises that needed to perform on six continents just to break even began to inherit the Earth. Today, as the “Ocean’s” franchise has been exhumed with an anonymous director at the helm, the normalization of this process is complete. While “Ocean’s Eight” is due to perform well during its opening weekend, a recent wave of vanilla studio misfires — coupled with a parallel surge of creatively daring hits — is threatening to disrupt the comfortable balance that Hollywood has struck between risk and reward.

Seventeen years after Steven Soderbergh turned a stagnant caper into one of the snappiest and most confident studio movies of the last 25 years, it’s no surprise to see the “Ocean’s” franchise resurrected with someone like Gary Ross at the helm. A solid journeyman whose long long career behind the camera has run the gamut from inventive parables (“Pleasantville”) to bland Oscar bait (“Seabiscuit”) and formlessly effective franchise starters (“The Hunger Games”), Ross is about as vanilla as it gets. He delivers his movies on time, on budget, and with the signature touch of someone who’s had all 10 of his fingerprints sanded off. Not for nothing, but he also happens to be old friends with “Ocean’s 8” producer Steven Soderbergh, according to several reports. Ross asked Soderbergh to shoot two days of second unit material on “The Hunger Games”; no wonder Ross was first in line for this new gig.

Needless to say, “Ocean’s 8” is very much a Gary Ross picture. His gender-swapped contribution to the series is exactly the kind of functional, anodyne sequel you’d expect to see in 2018 — it’s a clever, well-cast, fitfully amusing hodgepodge of girl power and gif-able moments that works better as a marketing campaign than it does as a movie.

It’s par for the course in an age when settling feels like the only play that blockbusters could afford to make, and safety is regularly conflated with success. An age when the biggest Hollywood films are routinely directed by malleable newbies like Colin Trevorrow, hastily promoted VFX gurus like “Maleficient” helmer Robert Stromberg, and vanilla comedy talents like “Dodgeball” director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who veered out of his initial lane with a trio of Dwayne Johnson vehicles (including 2016’s lifeless “Central Intelligence,” and this summer’s forthcoming “Die Hard with a Fake Leg in Hong Kong”).

The most obvious and readily available example of this phenomenon is, of course, “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which was hatched as a Lord and Miller joint before things fell apart and Ron Howard was sent in on a salvage mission. The result was a generic adventure that felt like an enervating return to Earth after Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” so boldly reimagined the entire galaxy. It would be cruel and shortsighted to lay most of the blame on Howard for this shortcoming (the character of Han is just as guilty), but he delivered a movie that didn’t leave audiences with any sort of edge to hold onto.

Nobody’s really talking about it. People are still making fresh “Infinity War” memes (“Yo’ mama’s so fat that Thanos had to snap twice!”), but everyone’s given up on even trying to spell Enfys Nest. The movie sputtered at the box office, and is now on track to gross $300 million less than “Rogue One” pulled down at the domestic box office. Hell, “Solo” isn’t even on pace to catch “Justice League.”

It wasn’t the first time that Disney’s new generation of Star Wars movies has struggled to find the right balance between risk and reward (their flurry of directorial firings has offered the public a rare glimpse behind the curtain), but it was the first time that paid a price for hedging their bets. It also wasn’t the first time this year that a big movie without a clear vision failed to catch fire with domestic audiences. Brad Peyton’s “Rampage” may have fulfilled its purpose by performing well overseas (The Rock fighting a giant ape is kind of an international language), but anyone who paid money to see that plastic husk of a Hollywood spectacle was probably a bit less enthusiastic about their next trip to the theater. Is there a single person who saw “Rampage” twice? Is there a reason why Gareth Edwards’ polarizing “Godzilla” outgrossed Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ derivative “Skull Island,” even though Warner Bros. charted identical releases for both films?

“Solo: A Star Wars Story”

Lucasfilm

Sure, “Solo” may have been hurt by the fact that it was released only six months after the previous “Star Wars” movie, but a one-off like “Rampage” is still part of what we talk about when we talk about franchise fatigue. The risk of Hollywood’s current tentpole strategy isn’t that people will grow sick of the things they love — the euphoric response to “Black Panther” paved the way for the monster success of the much less satisfying “Infinity War” just a few weeks later — but that they’ll grow tired of the things they’re asked to tolerate. Every blockbuster that transparently feels like product makes it that much harder for the film industry to sell us the next big thing.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been caught in the middle of this conflict for most of the 21st century. After 19 movies that have been smothered in the mega-franchise’s signature house style, it’s easy for even the most casual viewers to pinpoint the occasional derivations — just as it’s easy for the industry as a whole to track what motivates people to go to the multiplexes. When they hired an iconoclast like Edgar Wright to direct “Ant-Man,” it seemed like Marvel was finally ready to swing for the fences. And when creative differences resulted in Wright being replaced by “Yes Man” director Peyton Reed, it seemed like Marvel was trying to sacrifice bunt its way to success (no disrespect to Peyton Reed, a major talent who blossoms into a bonafide artist whenever he finds his comfort zone).

And yet, for all of its strife, “Ant-Man” pointed to a studio that sees the value of creative personality, even if it still feels like their movies are forged in a conference room. Idiosyncratic Phase 2 picks like Shane Black and James Gunn were a far cry from the inoffensiveness of Jon Favreau and Louis Leterrier. And Marvel profited by getting even more particular from there, as the droll absurdity of Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok” propelled it way past the comic book drudgery of “The Dark World,” while allowing Ryan Coogler to make an unabashedly black “Black Panther” resulted in a cultural phenomenon.

“Avengers: Infinity War”

Marvel Studios

Fans want to see their favorite characters onscreen, but general audiences crave the new and the unexpected. Those two demographics aren’t mutually exclusive, and they can be satisfied by the same film, but it’s telling that a monster hit like “The Force Awakens” still fell so far short of James Cameron’s “Avatar.” People are compelled by the promise of things they haven’t seen before, even if those things are just a 10-foot-tall Sam Worthington who ejaculates through his alien hair.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a franchise movie like “Fury Road,” an adaptation like “Gone Girl,” or a true original like “Get Out,” “Baby Driver,” or “A Quiet Place” — audiences aren’t galvanized by a sense of obligation, but rather by experiences that reward the risk of spending as much as $75 on a night at the movies. They want to feel like the studios risked something, too. We’re all happy to be taken for a ride, but cinema can’t survive on auto-pilot.

Which brings us back to Gary Ross and “Ocean’s 8.”

The “Ocean’s” movies have always been about the pleasure of being robbed. It’s the inevitable focus of a star-studded franchise that makes thieves into idols, and idols into thieves, effectively blurring the line between the two until the audience is too busy smiling to notice that we’re the ones getting swindled. We’re the ones paying to watch some of the wealthiest and most beautiful people on Earth stage elaborate heists in the hopes that marks like us will simply hand these actors the kind of money their characters are forced to steal.

And, like so many of the best cons, they make sure that we get to feel like we’re in on the joke. From the closing credits of Lewis Milestone’s 1960 original (when the Rat Pack saunters past some Vegas signage bearing their real names), to the cameo-heavy poker scene that kicked off Steven Soderbergh’s remake some 41 years later (in which millennial stars like Topher Grace take the piss out of themselves), to the most brilliant sequence in that film’s sequel (where Julia Roberts pretends to be Julia Roberts), the “Ocean’s” series loves to wink at us while it’s pulling the wool over our eyes. We’re always a half-step behind the heists, even though we get to watch them come together. It’s a hell of a thing to trick an audience into thinking they’re actually backstage.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Movies are all about the magic of getting hoodwinked — these movies just have the chutzpah to openly celebrate that deception. They’re confident stories about confidence men (and now women). Soderbergh was such a perfect fit to remake the original and built it into a franchise because he understood that these carefree heist comedies are ultimately about the things in this world that money can’t buy: Charisma, swagger, and the thrill of risking it all for a big score. All three of Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” films — even the last one, with Al Pacino’s Chinese-themed casino and Matt Damon’s dumb fake nose — feel like slick, weaponized middle fingers to an industry that’s constantly asking its audience to settle for less.

Ocean's 8

“Ocean’s 8”

Barry Wetcher

The problem with “Ocean’s 8” is that it doesn’t feel like being robbed, it feels like being cheated. It’s a friendly game of three-card monte on the heels of some god-level sleight-of-hand. Ross’ intentions don’t seem the least bit cynical or malicious, but “Ocean’s 8” is constantly reminding you that it’s playing things safe. As Debbie Ocean tells her team: “It’s always the attention to detail and the little grace notes that make something sing.” This movie hums a catchy tune, but it’s one flat note after another.

The crescendo to the big score is muted — the team-building scenes soft where Soderbergh’s were always razor-sharp — and there’s zero tension to the heist once things actually get underway. The script that Ross co-wrote with Olivia Milch does a decent job of fusing womanhood into the DNA of its story (elements of motherhood, institutional sexism, and femme glamor are present throughout), but the characters are stuck between copying the Soderbergh template and creating something new.

Too many of the details feel tossed off, while Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett are straitjacketed into a pale imitation of the George Clooney/Brad Pitt dynamic. It was brilliant for Anne Hathaway to continue the series’ self-reflexive tradition and play an exaggerated, unflattering version of herself, but the movie stops just short of letting that feel the least bit dangerous. The supporting cast gets to shine (the smaller the role, the more each actress gets to own it), but it’s a really bad sign when James Corden is the standout of your female-driven franchise reboot.

There’s just an irreconcilable world of difference between the bittersweet perfection of watching Danny Ocean’s crew scatter before the Bellagio fountains, and the “take it or leave it” silence of watching Debbie Ocean’s team part ways on the New York City subway, and it has nothing to do with the number of y chromosomes present in each scene.

“Ocean’s 8” is passable entertainment, but its one-size-fits-all ethos clashes with a story that hinges on style. The film’s generic feel only underscores the dire extent to which Hollywood needs to give women their own franchises, rather than just tailoring them into the ones men left behind. The evidence suggests that audiences are hungry for riskier, more distinctive fare, and the studios need to heed that message before all their old fashions get worn out. We’d rather the studios risk failure than give up on greatness.

There’s a tidy exchange from “Ocean’s Eleven” that sums up our current age of compromise. A dashing thief ambushes his ex-wife in a Las Vegas restaurant, and — cards on the table — asks her a very pointed question about her new boyfriend, slimy casino mogul Terry Benedict:

Danny Ocean: “Does he make you laugh?”
Tess Ocean: “He doesn’t make me cry.”

Danny might still be the same reckless gambler who screwed things up the first time around, but Tess has started to play the odds. Faced with a choice between potential love and certain stability, she’s put all her chips on the safest bet. And it’s hard to blame her for that, or for that haymaker of a comeback — Danny might have a movie star twinkle in his eye, but he also has a real penchant for winding up in prison. At a certain point, when the stakes get high enough, most people would rather cash out than risk it all on a game that’s rigged against them. But when a Hollywood assembles a cast that includes Cate Blanchett and Rihanna, and then hands them over to someone like Gary Ross, it’s like they’re counting cards on a low-stakes table in the hopes of not getting caught.

Luck is nice, but it only lasts so long — skill is how you make your millions. If the studios want to start playing to win, and not just to survive, they’ll have to keep putting their money on filmmakers who have a real point of view, risking it all on the Danny Oceans of the world rather than resigning us to a lifetime of Terry Benedicts. Eventually, they might even get back to a time when the movies didn’t make us choose between the two, when the great ones had the courage to make us laugh and to make us cry.

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