The Purge franchise has been an incredibly lucrative one for Universal. Since 2013 the franchise has grossed over 318 million dollars worldwide, on only a combined budget of about 22 million. That is an incredible return for Universal. The franchise also has a strong core fanbase that consistently turns out for these films. So it makes since for Universal to continue to produce these movies and on July 4th they released the fourth film in the franchise, The First Purge. This time around returning writer James DeMonaco (he also wrote the first three films) decided to take the film in a bit of a different direction and make a prequel. This makes complete sense because there didn’t appear to be a lot of uncharted territory in the previous direction, however a prequel offers plenty of storytelling opportunities. The marketing for the film promised to show us how this all began, which is an answer to one of the many interesting questions surrounding this story, making The First Purge the most anticipated of the franchise. Up to this point the franchise didn’t seem interested in anything other than “the purge” itself but this one appeared to be different and that was very intriguing. Unfortunately that amounted to nothing more than a pump fake because DeMonaco still doesn’t seem to be that interested in anything other than what takes place during those 12 hours.
The first 20 minutes of The First Purge deliver on what was promised. We see behind the scenes of the purge and how it started. It was conceptualized by Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), who believes that her experiment can solve rising crime rates and poverty. While Dr. Updale is a nonpolitical person and intends to keep politics out of “The Purge”, it doesn’t actually stop politics from getting involved. The rise of a new political party, The New Founding Fathers, are what actually makes “The Purge” a reality. They rose to power because of the constant strife between Republicans and Democrats. “The Purge” became their main policy and the success of this experiment will determine the continued success of their party. We are given a few different glimpses of how the experiment is set up. We see news interviews on both sides of the argument, an interview with Dr. Updale explaining the details and we also see the government paying citizens to stay on Staten Island, further incentivizing them to participate. There are also protests that are going on and casual conversations from the citizens of Staten Island about the craziness that is happening.
During this time the movie shines! It is incredibly intriguing and everything that I have wanted from this franchise. The behind the scenes of “The Purge” is far more interesting than the actual experiment. This film shows us that. Director Gerard McMurray takes the time to show us all of this and gives us an insight to how it all came about. The only problem is that it didn’t last very long. Once the experiment started most of that interesting political stuff fell to the side (for the most part) and it reverted back to what the franchise has become: scary masks and creative ways to kill people. It followed all the same beats of the other movies. There were plenty of crazy people wearing weird masks, the long sequence of running from one place to another, the several close calls and the safe house which is not actually safe. Outside of the opening, it was all paint by numbers, which wasn’t all that bad. All of those things are what made the franchise so successful and in part why people go and see these movies. They work just as effectively here as they did previously. The problem is we were shown something greater and that was taken away. Had they drawn out the beginning of the film, it would have made for a better film.
There was still some politics in the second half of the film, it was just unsatisfying and predictable. When the experiment doesn’t go the way everyone expected, or as Dr. Updale said, “the socioeconomic group is not behaving the way I expected,” the government steps in and sends in mercenaries to start killing people. This comes as a surprise to Dr. Updale and she is killed when she finds this out. While this wasn’t much of a surprise because The New Founding Fathers party had such a vested interest in the experiment’s success, it’s also poor story telling. The government being bad is the simplest version of this story and one that was already presented in previous films. There was no real need to further drive that point home in a predictable and uninteresting way. That is the problem with this film, once the experiment starts everything else becomes less interesting. Everything is the simplest version of the story that is being told and that is very disappointing.
The story isn’t just simple, however, it is also problematic. This franchise has been built (in part) off an incredibly interesting premise. It’s closest enough to a probable reality to make the horror more effective. The First Purge however presents something that was really bothersome for me. It presents “The Purge” as a policy that is inherently neutral, as a device that could be used for either good or evil. It is presented this way by its creator, Dr. Updale. As a character she functions as a surrogate for the actual experiment. Her nonpolitical perspective is transferred to the experiment and when she is killed for discovering the government’s intentions, she is painted as a sympathetic figure. That creates a less horrifying image of the experiment itself. Updale is never painted as a villain, the government is painted as the villains, so by the end of the film you are disgusted with the government for what they did during “The Purge” and not “The Purge” itself. Another problematic element of the film is the eventual hero of the film, Dmitri (Y’lan Noel). He is a drug dealer and not really painted as all that good of a guy. However, we end up on his side and rooting for him against a government that is doing despicable things. A drug dealer has been used plenty of times in movies as some kind of hero or a sympathetic figure, and I’m not necessarily against uncommon heroes or even unsympathetic ones. The problem with Dimtri is that there is no real nuance to his character. He isn’t faced with with the morality of his choices. He is painted as the protector and savior of his neighborhood and receives an applause at the end of the film. That is problematic no matter how you try to spin it and left a sour taste in my mouth.
Problems aside, The First Purge is what you would expect it to be. If you enjoyed the previous films then you will enjoy this one. There were parts of this film that were enjoyable for me. Even though the character is problematic, I think that Y’lan Noel gave the most compelling performance in the film. He was able to bring a real charisma to screen which was incredibly effective. His transformation into an action hero was also great and led to some great action sequences. There was one set piece that stood out above everything else. When Dmitri turns off the power to the building and a blinking emergency light is the only lighting for the scene, we get a really tense fight sequence. Each blink of the light shows him in a different place. It’s not original but it was very well done. If you are a fan of the franchise The First Purge works from a pure entertainment stand point. There are redeemable qualities to the film but there are too many genuinely problematic elements for it to be a completely enjoyable experience.
2 out of 5 stars
Director: Gerard McMurray Writer: James DeMonaco Cast: Y'Ian Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Steve Harris & Marisa Tomei Release Date: July 4th Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour and 38 minutes Image Credit: The First Purge