Back in 2013 Universal Studios launched a hit dystopian action horror franchise called “The Purge”. Save for the first movie nearly every entry has been released to coincide with the 4th of July with the third movie being released on the holiday weekend. For the first time though an entry is actually released ON the 4th of July, a prequel called “The First Purge” which explores the beginning of the film series’ look at a dystopian America that has embrace a rule-free night of murder and lawlessness. With a new director in Gerard McMurray and a neat idea to add something new to a franchise in desperate need of fresh paint, does “The First Purge” live up to the legacy of its predecessors? Let’s find out This is my review of “The First Purge”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“The First Purge”, as the name implies, explores the very first Purge night in a dystopian America where a third political party, the New Founding Fathers of America, have utilized public discourse over economics and other issues to usurp the Republicans and Democrats and take over the United States. In an attempt to further secure their position of power the party plans an experimental night of lawlessness on Staten Island called The Purge offering financial compensation to those who take part. As the first ever Purge begins in the confines of the island Purge protester Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) become caught in the crossfire and try to find a way to survive the night. Meanwhile Nya’s ex-boyfriend, drug dealer Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel), and his gang discover that mercenaries are being introduced into the experiment by the New Founding Fathers to up the numbers and ensure that the Purge is a successful experiment. Dmitri goes on a crusade to stop the mercenaries and save Nya and Isaiah as the world watches on to see the impact of an experiment that would go on to become a new American tradition.
By all accounts “The First Purge” is a very average film, but there are aspects that help it stand out in the crowd. First off there is a fresh feel to the film with new director Gerard McMurray taking over from James DeMonaco who wrote and directed the previous three movies. DeMonaco still gets the sole writing credit with this fourth entry. “The First Purge” still embraces some of the odd and dark imagery of the previous movies, but it feels a bit more raw and held back rather than a simple all out blood fest. While this would normally be an error with the film because it’s technically a step back from the original trilogy, it’s important to remember that this is a prequel. We’re seeing the start of this violent night of terror and “cleansing” so toning down the violence actually works in the context of this movie because people are just starting to explore the possibilities of the Purge. They have to get used to the idea that killing, stealing and general anarchy are legal for a single night. So, like the New Founding Fathers watching on, the audience is patiently waiting to see how this experiment plays out but when things don’t go exactly as planned government intervention comes into play which bring me to another area where this movie works.
Like the previous two movies in the series, “The First Purge” focuses heavily on government intervention to make the Purge a more successful night. The idea of inserting mercenaries and corrupting the experiment is explored once again showing that this idea wasn’t unique to the later Purge nights but has, in fact, been a staple of this event from the beginning. Little things like that offer great context as to the evolution of the Purge itself, but they also add some interesting subtext. Government corruption and the willingness of those in power to sacrifice the people for their own political gain are driven home as the experiment is compromised in order to meet a specific end. As it turns out the Purge may have failed without the powers that be making it succeed, and yet the public begins to eat it up providing a subtle, if incomplete, look at the concept of mob mentality that has become all too common in real-world America in recent years. “The First Purge” may not fully cash in on these deeper concepts but it does enough to make you think which in turn makes “The First Purge” one of the more uncomfortable entries in this franchise because it focuses more on society’s acceptance of an idea based on popular opinion and forced variables rather than natural human intuition.
“The First Purge” is also, thankfully, much more horror than the action-oriented sequels. Yes there’s still plenty of action and bloodshed, but there’s just a more creepy quality to this film with more creative and rudimentary masks being worn by the purgers that are scarier by design because they look thrown together as well as the nice touch of colored lenses used in the film to record the action of the first Purge that give the eyes of everyone participating a spooky glow. The film also features a pretty creepy, if underused, side-villain in the form of a druggy named Skeletor and the scenes that put the main characters at risk add credible suspense to the project. There are even a few somewhat tasteless moments in the film that call back to real-world tragedies, including a shooting at a church, that help drive home the terror the public faces on Purge night better than the previous movies. Can you imagine what we see as terrorism today being considered legal for a single night in America? “The First Purge” boldly brings that to life. In a world where specific traditions and popular Purge cliches have yet to be born or take hold it’s truly uncomfortable to watch society break down. The scariest part of “The First Purge” is now real it can feel sometimes even if it’s overall premise is still completely unbelievable.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Despite it’s social subtext and the fact that it might be one of the most effectively creepy movies in the franchise, “The First Purge” is still nothing more than a generic summer action horror flick. First off the acting in the movie is just okay with only one real big name in the cast, Marisa Tomei who plays a psychologist who monitors the Purge. She also plays a much smaller role that previews promised. Otherwise they’re all relative unknowns and granted this movie is a fine opportunity for these lesser know actors and actresses to shine but there’s no chemistry or standout qualities among them. Several of the actors try to add some nuance to their characters including comedic sarcasm, desperation and personal guilt but none of them feel natural or actually sell the performances. At times I even found it hard to remembering who was who because a lot of these characters were exactly the same. Everyone does just enough to get by, but not enough to sell the project, which is kind of a theme for this entire movie. I’d even boldly say “The First Purge” has some of the most bland acting in the series and definitely has the most unmemorable characters who are simply there to give us someone to root for in the chaos that is Purge night.
While I give the film credit for focusing more on the mob mentality ideas of Purge night, the thing I found most annoying about “The First Purge” is that as a work of art it embraces that same sin on its own. “The First Purge” doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it leans heavily on the public opinion of President Donald Trump and the political divide that has engulfed America over the past few years. It’s not the first film in the series to lean so heavily on real-world politics. “Election Year” was timed specifically to work with the Trump-Clinton election in 2016. However now that America in general seems to be falling apart under the weight of opinions and political allegiance “The First Purge” leans super heavy on this real-world divide and panders to the current state of America. Now in some ways this works, as I mentioned earlier, but it mostly just feels like reaching for the lowest hanging fruit to provide an emotional trigger for viewers to see the movie. It’s the same problem I had with “Election Year” but even that movie didn’t feel so on the nose. A superior film could have embraced the subtleties of its message to be a much smoother satire of the reality of America today. “The First Purge” doesn’t subscribe to subtlety at all in terms of its politics. While I’m not the biggest fan of Trump myself even I found this film to be mildly annoying in its over-dependence on modern day political unrest to drive home its story. It makes it feel immediately dated as soon as you leave the theater and have time to ponder about it.
Finally “The First Purge” takes FOREVER to get going. I didn’t time it, but it certainly at least feels like this movie takes the longest of any film to get to the Purge with a lot of buildup and character development that, in itself, offers little to no payoff. I understand we needed to see how the world sees this experiment but when all that buildup is nothing more than exposition and forced revelations of character relations it’s hard to get invested. Simply put their too much setup for an event we’re already familiar with and not enough Purge night. Even when the Purge finally begins I found myself wanting to yell at the screen to “get to the point”. The pacing is way off from what we’re used to. Building up to the event wouldn’t be a bad idea if there was some actual substance to work with, but “The First Purge” offers the least of any movie in the franchise to really jack up the excitement. We just want to get to the death and terror of the titular event and it takes way too long to get there with minimal payoff.
All in all, I’d define “The First Purge” as just okay at best. It has things that work, and things that don’t. The cast is unmemorable and lacks chemistry and this prequel leans a little too heavily on modern political unrest in the real world to pander the its audience which can be very annoying. It also takes FOREVER to get going, but it does add a new perspective to the franchise by taking us back to the beginning and thus tones down the violence while upping the creepiness to great effect. All the same “The First Purge” still doesn’t truly bring this franchise back from the depths and can feel tired and drawn out. I can’t say the prequel is unwarranted because it is cool to see how it all began and the social subtext of mob mentality and government intervention are nice touches that work well with the story. As with many middle of the road films it all depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re a long-time fan of “The Purge” franchise this movie does just enough to satisfy and if this is your introduction to the Purge it probably won’t entice you to see the first three movies. In the end “The First Purge” is only as entertaining and thought provoking as it needs to be. Nothing more, nothing less. That, by definition, is what makes a generic film.