Ocean’s 8, a gender-swapped version of the Ocean’s 11 franchise, is currently hitting the silver screen this month, and some of the first reviews are in. Their verdict? A big meh. The film does what you’d expect, but it’s underwhelming to an extreme. Not that you’d get this from the reviews – reviewers are falling over themselves to big the film up because it’s an important movie. Is this a fair reflection? And, is it necessary to protect this gender-swapped movie from the inevitable hostility it has faced?
I’ve never seen a critic try so hard to avoid saying a film is dull
Look at some of the reviews that are out there. At Entertainment Weekly, Leah Greenblatt writes that the films “girls-just-wanna-have-grand-larceny conceit is the kind of starry, high-gloss goof the summer movie season was made for, even if it feels lightweight by the already zero-gravity standards of the genre”. In other words, the idea of the film is good, even though the movie is completely insubstantial. Alonso Duralde writes for The Wrap: “the right people have been hired, and everyone is where they’re supposed to be. That level of planning makes the heist in Ocean’s 8 run fairly smoothly. As for the film itself, similarly curated with care, it gets the job done without ever being one for the record books.” I’ve never seen a critic try so hard to avoid saying a film is dull.
Obviously, the textbook case of fans not liking a gender-swapped film is the 2016 version of Ghostbusters. It was met with scorn from the get-go, with online commentators hurling abuse at the film’s stars and screaming that the movie’s existence had ‘ruined their childhood’ or sentiments to that effect. In the end, it turned out to be a fairly poor film anyway, but its reception wasn’t helped by the director, Paul Feig, stating in an interview that the only reason people could dislike the film would be because they hated women.
Despite claiming that these films are empowering women, they’re doing anything but
I do not think the reaction to these films is down to them having an all-female cast – in the past, films like A League of Their Own, Thelma and Louise, and The Help (to give just three examples) were big commercial and critical successes, and they all featured primarily female casts with interesting characters. No, the issue is the implication that people will only go to watch female-driven films because they are fooled by brand recognition and that the male version has done all the groundwork. Despite claiming that these films are empowering women, they’re doing anything but; is it not condescending to suggest that people are not willing to watch an all-female cast or female actors in films based on their own merits?
Despite the poor reputation these films have, reviewers are still keen to hype them up because of the motivations for making them – they are important, and so they deserve praise regardless of their quality. The same thing happened with A Wrinkle in Time. It was hyped up as a big Disney blockbuster this year, with tons of articles being written about why it was an important film because of the Help Hel choice of director (Ava DuVernay, the first woman of colour to helm a live-action $100 million production) and the casting of a biracial girl as the protagonist (in the books, she is white). The movie was a giant flop because it was boring, but critics had a different array of explanations – it tried too hard, it was too ambitious, the audience was inherently biased against it, or, according to one of the most patronising articles I’ve ever read, the system was rigged against it and wanted the film to fail. Now in the era of #MeToo, it’s the turn of women-led movies to be important.
Women deserve better than men’s sloppy seconds. The responsibility falls on Hollywood to make films that are interesting, original, and enjoyable, to make people want to watch them. Look at something like Annihilation, Lady Bird, or Hereditary, to give you just a few recent examples; there are tons of fantastic female-led films out there without needing to gender-swap existing ones to be able to claim that it is somehow ‘progressive’. Don’t try to make excuses if a female-led film flops and then claim that its audience is instinctively biased against women. The audience does not want to watch lazy retreads of existing franchises.
If you want to support women, Hollywood, give them substantial and interesting roles. It can be done, and it’s frequently done. Swapping the names on a script isn’t good enough, it will only lead to more rubbish like Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 8.