Synopsis – After the rise of a third political party, the New Founding Fathers of America, an experiment is conducted, no laws for 12 hours on Staten Island. No one must stay during the experiment yet there is $5,000 for anyone who does.
My Take – I think we all can agree that The Purge franchise has an interesting premise to play with, by setting in an alternate United States of America where, for 12 hours once a year, all crime is legal including murder, a simple yet open excuse for the rich to literally prey on the poor, by waging war on the 99-percent with shotguns and knives as well as unjust laws, it rapidly realizes its potential for sociopolitical commentary. While the first installment of the series underwhelmed considering how a country-wide event was self-contained in a single house, it’s subsequent sequels, The Purge: Anarchy (2014) and The Purge: Election Year (2016), successfully opened up all forms of madness the 2013 film had only teased about, all the while evolving from its horror-like approach into a much more political and dramatic thriller drive. While the series has generally received a mixed critical reception, a worldwide gross of $329 million against a combined budget of $37 million, always meant more sequels were on the way.
Here, franchise creator James DeMonaco hands over the reins to up-and-coming black director Gerard McMurray, for a prequel that tries to shed light to the creation of the titular annual event, which also acts as a sort of backdoor pilot to an upcoming 10-part Syfy and USA Network series, which is set somewhere in the middle of the films’ chronology, and is slated for a September release, all while giving us more kills to bathe in. While, the idea of going back to the very first purge has potential, this film lives up to nothing of the sort.
Surprisingly, this film adds little to the story overall, other than showing us once again the carnivorousness depiction of the white and elite ruling class that delights in nothing more than the disenfranchisement of the lower class. Sure, it’s still creepy, and brings up good topics for discussion, and has an exciting climax to wrap things up, however, it is all lost to extreme stretches of imagination, predictable plots of incomplete stories, and an unhealthy obsession of gore. Yes, its predecessors were blunt in its satire, but they were also absurd and a lot of fun, which this one is rarely.
Taking place years before the events of the original film, the story follows a group of residents of one of the housing projects in Staten Island; Nya (Lex Scott Davis), a social worker, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), her teenage brother, who is involved in drug dealing behind his sister’s back, Luisa (Luna Lauren Velez) and her daughter Selina (Kristen Solis), Dolores (Mugga), their wisecracking neighbor and D’mitri (Y’lan Noel), Nyla’s ex and a criminal kingpin, who unwillingly become a part of social experiment, the newly elected political party, the New Founding Fathers of America, who considering the turmoil condition of the country, a willing to allow people to release all their anger and violence for a 12 hour period.
In order for people to participate the NFF are ready to offer a kind of monetary stipend to anyone who agrees to stay on the Island during the period and submit to a psychological profile before and after the event. In order to claim later on, the participants must wear a pair of glowing contact lenses that record their activity and beam it up to people watching in the control towers, all in order to correspond to how much purging activity they engage in. Masterminding the whole plot is the NFF president’s chief of staff, Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) and Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei), who masterminded the experiment for what she insists are nonpolitical reasons.
When the siren warning begins, people are all just walking around armed trying to protect their properties. Some decide to set up booby traps for their enjoyment. Some are creeps that try to prey on girls. Some throw a block party. Then, there is a psychopath like Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) walking among the people and killing them for fun and a mercenary group that is killing for sport. What they discover is that people don’t act during the experiment exactly as science and simulations suggest they will.
Each film of this series strives to make meaningful statements about today’s America, and this one is no different, as the film begins with a mix of real and fictional news coverage, which showcases protests to the NRA. A sad commentary on today’s world and a promising start to set up. But fifteen minutes in, you should be able to predict exactly how everything else for the rest of the film will go, as everything is transparently re-written from cliché horror film tropes. People do the sort of stupid things they’re supposed to do in a horror film, and we’re supposed to root for them and by the time third act comes around, all pretense is ignored and the film becomes a generic action film. While the prequel was supposed to the night the titular tradition was born, it doubles down on the social commentary and the topicality of its predecessors, peppers the urban anarchy with overt references to white-nationalist violence. While the second and third installment of the series, can be considered unexpectedly well not just as action-horror-thrillers, but as standalone films, this one is not.
While it does showcase a rare raft of talented black actors, as well as for an as up-and-coming black director in Gerard McMurray, it’s the screenplay by the franchise creator James DeMonaco that is not quite imaginative enough to keep from getting monotonous after a while. Mainly as the plot of the film is no different from any of the previous installments, aside from not quite making a valid argument as to why these events even take place each year, which is what I felt this film’s only job was in the first place. Here, we see the ways how the whole creation was manipulated, misrepresented, and turned into entertainment by a complicit media.
We also witness the corrupting nature of the Purge, the ways in which its existence drives people towards actions they otherwise wouldn’t commit. Failing to provide insight as to why this event continues on is just the icing on the cake of what makes this film so dreadfully bad though. Leaving questions unanswered is not the problem. There are many stories that will ask questions that are up to the audience to decide. However, here topics are brought up and never addressed again. The whole exercise is random and pointless. Part of the fun of the previous film was how thoroughly director/ writer DeMonaco constructed his Twilight Zone America, with a surplus of ideas as to how the country might be reshaped by its annual bloodletting. I agree, being a supposed origin-story, the film can’t indulge as heavily in such details, though, amusingly, the aesthetic of the purge emerges almost fully formed within minutes of the commencement sirens.
Most importantly, in the previous three films, perhaps the scariest aspect of the franchise was that anyone could be a Purger, whether a stranger, a chance acquaintance, or someone close to you. While it was understandable that someone might have to kill a Purger in self-defense, this was tempered by the fact that many Purgers were simply regular people who were convinced by the NFFA’s propaganda that they were actually fulfilling some kind of twisted patriotic duty. But here, virtually every Purger is a gun for hire or an avowed racist, willing foot soldiers in a one-sided race war for white supremacy. And therefore, like the Nazis in so many World War II films, the Purgers here are now enemies who can be killed without remorse, and perhaps even with some righteous gratification. What’s striking here is how fear mongers like Skeletor, a ridiculous crackhead psychopath are few and far between. In previous films, the Purge was an orgy of caterwauling carnage, with the majority of society more than amped up for their 12 hours of terror.
Here, it’s rejected by a good majority of the local community, who choose to throw block parties in lieu of participating. But that isn’t to say the film isn’t effective when it has to be; it undeniably succeeds in making you feel bad, which is exactly what it’s after. It’s loud and violent and creepy and leaves you uneasy. The action is good and bone crunching, the character Skeletor (yes, that’s his name) deserves his own film, and there were some scattered ideas I found compelling and fascinating, especially how the NFFA goes about really kicking the Purge into highest gear as a means of depleting the lowest tax income bracket. The film does have its usual jump scares with people popping out of nowhere, and the contact lenses that is used as a camera does add a lighting effect to the eyes which made the people even creepy. Especially, when people are walking down an alley and seeing creepy stares through windows.
An important factor ignored here was how each consecutive film was able to provide characters that had a backstory for you to follow and while this film attempts to, it comes off as lazy, as the cast is filled with stereotyping people and giving them nothing but clichéd backstories all across the board. Marisa Tomei, who won an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny back in 1992, is completely wasted as the scientist who comes up with murder night and then gets offended that the external validity of the experiment is being compromised by the introduction of exogenous effects intended to bias the outcome of the trial. Her character is only present to spew expositional dialogue that will even seem dumb to young kids. You can tell she knows this gig is yet another quick paycheck until the ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home‘ begins production. While, the rest of cast led by Y’lan Noel, who has great potential to be an exciting action hero, Joivan Wade, Lex Scott Davis, Luna Lauren Velez and Mugga are alright in their respective roles. While Patch Darragh hams, and Rotimi Paul goes enjoyably over the top. On the whole, ‘The First Purge‘ is an underwhelming prequel which never utilizes its potential by divulging only in senseless and cliché tropes.
Directed – Gerard McMurray
Rated – R
Run Time – 98 minutes