Film Review – The First Purge
The First Purge
4 Movies in, this series with the Twilight Zone-esqe premise, continues to be an exercise in frustration. We all know the setup by now: Once a year, the American government declares that all crimes are legal for 12 hours. This is in an effort to have everyone exorcise their baser instincts in one giant catharsis so that the rest of the year presumably there is law and order. They did a similar story on the original Star Trek (Return of the Archons with it’s “Red Hour”). And this setup in the nebulous near future is straight out of the Rod Serling playbook of commenting on current society through a slightly skewed lense. But the issue, as has always been with every movie in this series, is a great idea suffers from pedestrian execution.
This time around we get a prequel to the series in The First Purge. During the credits sequence we are shown that the New Founding Fathers of America as referenced in earlier films is newly in power. They have won the Presidency and promise a solution to society’s ills. So, with sponsors like the NRA, they conduct an experiment where Staten Island in New York is to be isolated for 12 hours to host the first Purge. The government pays people to stay on the island and wants to monitor the situation as an example to the world. In some of the best social commentary this movie has to offer, they really put a fine point on how this disproportionally involves low income black people. They are the ones desperate enough to think the $5000 being offered is worth a night of surviving potential riots.
So as you can see, cutting social commentary is introduced. Marisa Tomei is the biggest star in this film as the doctor who created this experiment. There are touches of the Dr. Mengle type of antiseptic science without any thought of morality. She is looking at the potential mayhem as raw data points. However, the film is smart enough to show that just because a populace can riot doesn’t mean they will instantly devolve like animals. When most of the citizens decide to have a block party instead of wholesale murder, with blatant racism shown, the government officials surrounding Tomei’s character decide to intervene. They want this experiment to work and are willing to “tweak” the results.
The heroes we follow this time around are confused but basically good kid Isaiah (played by Joivan Wade), his sister and anti purge activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis), and Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) who used to date Nya but is now the biggest gang leader in the neighborhood. Able support is given by the likes of Steve Harris and Kuna Lauren Velez as well as others playing various characters in the community. They band together to fight the various crazies and authoritarians who are out to up the body count. It’s good to see a mainstream movie with so many roles for minorities. If only the movie itself could fulfill it’s promise.
This is likely the best Purge film since the original. There are various moments that purposely evoke current politics. Aside from the NRA backing this idea, we also get a lot of jingoistic patriotic speech from the government types, we get white power types mowing down black people, and we even get a reference to the famous quote of Trump’s about grabbing women. The First Purge hews more closely to our current political climate than even the previous films did. However, just like all of it’s predecessors, it devolves into glossy looking gun play. I’ve brought this up before: a real Purge situation would get really disturbing really quickly. There are some individuals who would engage in some genuinely awful behavior. This premise should be more disturbing. Instead, it ends up being people in Halloween masks shooting a lot of rounds with automatic weapons. That’s terrible, sure. But at this point our real world news seems more horrific. This all reminds me of how movies like The Running Man or Demolition Man introduce some potentially interesting commentary of societal violence but then set it aside so Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone can engage in muscular gunplay. Shows like Black Mirror have dealt with similar themes more thoughtfully and disturbingly than these movies (in fact, the episode White Bear is like watching a better version of this story).
The First Purge isn’t a bad movie by any stretch. It’s just nowhere near great. Solid acting and witty idea setups are underdone by glossy Michael Bay-ish cinematography and obvious story choices. We live in a time where ideas like how our officials view our role in society really needs to be addressed. But these movies are more interested in gunplay than thoughts.