By Ryen Thomas
July 7, 2018
Here we are with The First Purge, the fourth addition (but prequel) to a franchise promising to deliver a blood fest, mixed with social commentary of America’s sadistic lust affair with violence. In Purge world, the United States government, run by the neo fascist regime, The New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), implements an annual night when all crimes, including murder, are legal.
The first film, The Purge (2013), tells the story of an upper crust family fighting for their survival during the night of terror. Purge: Anarchy (2014) follows up by expanding the world to include not so well off citizens resisting the horrific institution. In a 2016 review, I wrote, “The Purge: Election Year (2016) is a thought- provoking third follow up in a franchise that’s half slasher thriller, half political and social commentary.” At the time, I appreciated how Election successfully wrapped up the narrative of carnage, so when I heard about The First Purge and it’s mostly minority cast featuring actor Y’Lan Noel from the hit HBO series, Insecure, I instantly wondered if the goal was not to tell us anything new, but capitalize on the critical and cultural success of another Blumhouse’ film, Get Out. True enough, without Get Out there probably wouldn’t be The First Purge.
With yawn-worthy, predictable thrills and forced, clunky dialogue, this prequel lacks the savviness of Get Out and even the first Purge films. Purge series director James De Monaco returns here only as the writer, handing over the reins to Gerald McMurray (Netflix’s Burning Sands).
Marisa Tomei phones in the part of Dr. May Updale, the main architect behind the Purge program. She yearns for it to go nationwide; but first, a trial run for social experiment takes place in a contained and controlled environment, Staten Island. The government pays citizens $5,000 if they choose to remain on the Island with additional compensation for those who’ll allow themselves to be tracked by the government. Their killings will be broadcast to the world to see. The broadcast is supposed to sway public opinion in favor of the program (although personally, I’d think seeing so much blood would do the opposite).
Nevertheless, the experiment provides the perfect opportunity for impoverished and marginalized citizens to make a quick financial gain and to express rage, exploited by those who believe they’re savage animals.
Staten Island’s gritty projects and abandoned buildings become potentially excellent haunted house settings with tons of dark passageways just waiting for something to jump out and go bump in the night. But the thrills are few and far between; and the night’s reality consists more of wise old neighbors protecting their goods, congregating at church to pray and at worst, pulling pranks and partying like it’s 1999.
When there is suspense, it’s because the film’s bland characters make cringeworthy choices and blindly walk into danger. But unbeknownst to them, the real threat comes from outside the neighborhood from those who care less about their civility.
In the second half of the film, the narrative finally trades in the predictable game of cat and mouse for the social commentary and action that brings 70’s Blaxploitation tropes into the Black Lives Matter era. This is when the characters finally make smart choices, ordinary citizens fight for what’s theirs, and those once on the wrong side of the law, become protectors of true American justice.
The battle between citizens and their oppressors provide the film’s better moments, but they occur far late into the narrative and too close to it’s finish line for us to really care about what happens. Add to the fact that we already know what little heroism there is will be in vain. (The Purge goes national anyway, hence the the other films.).
At best, The First Purge serves less as a film and more as a reminder that more horrifying moments of racial and social injustice are off the screen, and can potentially create the path to the threats this fictitious world depicts.
Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5