The First Purge: How to Kill a Franchise

I always thought the Purge was a really cool concept for a movie series. A 12 hour period, once a year, in which all crime is legal, thus the street become total chaos in which time your friends or neighbours could turn around and butcher you over any slight. I felt that the first movie wasted its premise by restricting it to a home invasion movie, but its two sequels more than made up for it in terms of action and fleshing out the concept.

It’s a shame that by the time movie number four rolled around, they seemed for forget how creative they could have been with this idea. The First Purge ignores all of the things that made the previous movies so interesting and boils it down to a weak action movie with even weaker social commentary.

The First Purge, as the title would suggest, is a prequel. It’s the story of how the “New Founding Fathers”, the political party who rein over the country in the previous movies, came into power and conceived of the Purge as a way to lower crime by giving the American people an outlet for their anger.

When in reality, it was a way for them to lower the population, specifically removing those poor and old enough unable to defend themselves during this night of chaos. The rich and powerful stay safe while the poor and those who don’t “contribute” to their society are most at risk.

The First Purge is set up as a social experiment, only taking place on Staten Island, New York, rather than nationwide as it does in the previous movies. The government offer anyone who stays on the island during the experiment large sums of money, and encourages them to “participate” for even more reward. Thus, this experiment takes place and we follow a collection of characters as they try and survive the night.

Starting With A Weak Cast

Starring Lex Scott Davis as Nya and Joivan Wade as her younger brother; Isaiah. These two primarily try and survive the night after Isaiah foolishly particulates to try and kill a unhinged drug addict who cut him days before. The action lead is filled by Y’Lan Noel as Dmitri; a gang leader and drug dealer who also happens to be Nya’s ex boyfriend. He tries to ride the night out but gets dragged in when trained mercenary groups start to indiscriminately kill innocents.

Finally, the C plot follows Marisa Tomei as Dr. May Updale, the behavioural scientist behind the Purge and Patch Darragh as Aldo Sabian, the chief of staff for the New Founding Fathers, who both observe the night as is plays out.

Following the nights of these characters, the first problem with the movie becomes apparent. They have no real drive or arc throughout the movie. The characters on the ground during the Purge have no real goal beyond survival, and are only dragged into action through circumstance. While Isaiah begins with motivation for revenge, it’s a petty motivation and he fails to follow through with it almost right away when given a perfect opportunity, thus any arc he could have had is swept under the rug at the beginning of the second act.

Let’s compare this character to one from a far better movie: Purge Anarchy. The lead in that movie was Frank Grillo as Leo. His character was a L.A. Cop who walks out into the Purge with the goal of getting revenge on a man who killed his son in a drunk driving incident and avoided imprisonment on a technicality.

Despite his murderous intent, Grillo’s character is a good guy and ends up getting sidetracked into helping defenceless people who find themselves victims of the more enthusiastic Purge participants. Unlike any of the characters in the First Purge, Grillo’s character has some conflict that goes behind being skin deep. He’s a heroic character, but still has a darkness to him. The movie avoids giving him the moral choice until the very end of the movie, after which he has seen so much senseless murder than he forgives the killer of his son, and it ends up saving his own life as a consequence.

Nobody in the First Purge has any depth to them beyond what we’re shown at face value. Isaiah could have had an arc in which he goes from being a clueless kid to having an edge to him thanks to the night and then makes a moral choice about his revenge come the movie’s end. But he doesn’t he just fades into the background after failing to shoot the person he wanted revenge on. Dmitri is the strong action lead here anyway, but he also lacks any real development. While he might be the set up as a criminal and gang banger, he is never really shown as anything but a “nice guy”. So when he finds out Nya and Isaiah are in trouble, of course he drops everything to rescue them.

The other strange addition is that of Marisa Tomei’s character. She is shown to be the mind behind the Purge experiment. Throughout the movie she is commenting on the rate in which people are murdering one another, but despite any rational minded person seeing her as insane for coming up with this idea, the The First Purge hardly treats her as being a villain.

She is the person who suggested that people should start to murder one another, but when people don’t actually want to butcher their neighbours she is surprised. Thus, when mercenary groups get involved, we’re supposed to feel bad for her? As if the integrity of her experiment was some wholesome thing?

She starts digging into the government intervention and subsequently gets caught and executed as a result. Are we supposed to feel sorry for her? The movie never does anything to cast the character in a villainous light, and yet that’s exactly what she is. When she gets dumped on the island I was almost expecting her to join up with the rest of the cast and have some moment of regret over her actions, but instead she gets gunned down pretty unceremoniously. The conclusion to her plot was handled really poorly. Speaking of thing being poorly handled.

 

The Heavy Handed Delivery

The Purge has never been a subtle series of movies. But there was something incredibly enticing about them in a morbid kind of way. They were set in near future dystopia, one in which the Purge was just a fact of life. It was a statistical fact that the Purge lowered crime rates and improved the quality of life of the American people. It might have seemed like an incredibly grim way to live, but it was the way of things.

What made each of the other movies interesting was how they displayed the different aspects of life in which the Purge was a reality. The main characters were often the poor and sick most susceptible to being victims of the Purge, but as they moved from place to place, we got to see the different faces to it. The individuals dressed up in warped versions of American iconography, dolling out public executions with huge amounts of fanfare while giggling insanely.

Then there was the other side, the rich who treated the Purge like a game, using their wealth not only to ensure personal armies kept them safe, but also to kidnap people for them to engaging in one sided “human hunts”. Sipping wine and laughing mockingly amongst themselves all the way.

The movies took the examples of societal problems in America; blind patriotism, the social divide and the 1% and amped them up to a terrifying extreme. I wouldn’t exactly call the social commentary going on subtle, but in terms of this future they had created, it worked.

The First Purge lacks most of these interesting little minutia. Because it is the “first” one, a lot of the weird cultism and fanfare that surrounds the event were absent. In the other movies, it’s obvious some people plan all year round what crazy shit they’re going to get up to on Purge night. Consequently, everything that happens in this movie seems pretty vanilla by comparison.

Everyone left on the island are the ones poor enough to need the money the government are dolling out, so we don’t get to see any different aspects of how society deal with a night of consequence free crime. The movie, rather than taking digs at cultural issues in America, seems to think this was a perfect time to make fun of the Trump regime instead, as amazingly novel a concept as that is right now.

The president himself bears similarities to the current real world counterpart, the term “pussy Grabber” is used on one occasion and no to mention the stuff the movie’s promotional material is filled with. The movie goes after every “Make America Great Again” reference without actually saying the words themselves. It’s a shame, because the movie sacrifices its dystopian future of extreme social commentary, and instead takes a collection of weak stabs at the current socio-political climate.

The Purge didn’t need to go out of its way to try and draw comparisons between its own plot and the alt-right movement and allegedly corrupt government happening in the real world right now, they were doing it just fine before they started trying too hard.

 

Drawing too much attention to its premise

Bringing the movie back to the first purge creates another negative consequence, aside from losing it’s unique, extreme setting. It being the very first one means that the movie has to show how this insane murder day became a reality. This, as it turns out, was a terrible idea. The idea of a prequel such as this is to expand upon the world and lore of the franchise, The First Purge manages to avoid doing this completely.

We never questioned how the Purge came to be in the previous movies. It was a fact of life, newsreaders would give facts and figures as to how the Purge statistically reduced crime, unemployment and even taxes. We didn’t question it, because nobody in the movie did, it seemed to have its desired effect, and we just went along with the thrill ride. By spelling out how the Purge came to be, it draws attention to how absurd the premise actually is. The lacklustre execution doesn’t help either.

The explanation of how this becomes nationwide is dealt with in a mid credits scene. We get a press conference with Patch Darragh, declaring the experiment a “huge success”. I’m sorry, but how. I would have actually been interested to see how the New Founding Fathers would spin a night of rampant murder as a positive thing. Sure, in the later movies, there was statistical data that showed that the Purge did have some positive effect on the nation. Here, the night is over and hundreds, if not thousands of people probably died. So the Chief of staff goes on T.V. and declares it a huge success, and that there could be another as soon as next year. How the hell you come to that conclusion.

It’s one thing when you can prove that this appalling human rights violation has a positive effect, but to go and say it was a success based on the death tally alone is ridiculous. I’d have appreciated the movie a bit more if they dedicated some time to the aftermath, the combating of the negative press, and slow realisation that Staton Island flourishes in the following year or two, then the controversial announcement that a public vote has allowed the Purge to go nationwide.

Again, The concept of the Purge is one of the most interesting things about it. This movie doesn’t feel any real desire to expand upon it in any meaningful way. When they could have made intelligent choices in making this movie, focusing on how such a horrific night becomes an annual tradition through public approval. Instead, they opted to make a shallow action movie which focuses its efforts into making weak stabs at the current President.

Conclusions

The First Purge felt like a jumbled movie. It has the horror/slasher aspects that the earlier movies had, but foregoes them pretty quickly to focus on gang warfare plot lines and then a government conspiracy. There were a few visual horror aspects I enjoyed. People participating in the Purge all got contact lens that made their eyes glow in the dark, it was an effective little visual effect that worked in the early parts of the movie, but is forgotten by the half way point.

Aside from that, I’ve made my feelings pretty much known. There is nothing interesting or creative about this movie. It’s a bland recreation of the other movies, not doing anything especially unique, while at the same time missing the major aspects that made the previous movies so interesting in a morbidly fascinating kind of way.

I liked the idea of the Purge being an anthology series that told a variety of very different stories in this setting, and between the first and second movie, that seemed like what it was doing. By the time we’ve hit the fourth entry, The Purge has settled into its worn grooves and goes for something safe rather than something interesting. I’d be surprised if we get a fifth one of these, and even more so if a fifth one turns into anything more ambitious than this was.

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