“Blessed be our New Founding Fathers for letting us Purge and cleanse our souls. Blessed be America, a nation reborn.”
That is the blessing that is recited by those who participate in The Purge – a 12-hour event where all crime is legal, including murder. An unexpected hit horror franchise emerged from this idea, which many feel hit a little too close to home. This prequel, The First Purge, goes even further in depicting a world that feels like it could become our reality any day now.
In a nation where everyone is at war over opinions and morality, a third political party is born and takes control of the nation – The New Founding Fathers. This party and its newly elected president fund the proposed experiment of a psychiatrist, referred to as The Architect (Marisa Tomei), to see if it could bring a change for the better. Staten Island is chosen as the test site, for reasons that are never explained. Presumably it was because of its high crime rate and large minority population.
The residents, despite protests, are given an incentive to participate: a guaranteed $5,000 if they stay in Staten Island and live, plus an undisclosed amount of additional money if they participate. A paltry sum, relatively speaking, but enough money to motivate the poor, the desperate and the angry. It’s also a strong motivator for the career criminals, whose work could benefit from a night free of consequences.
Leading the people of Staten Island against the experiment is Nya ( Lex Scott Davis), a former gang member turned social justice warrior. Her brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), is mixed-up in the world of crime and feels the need to join in The Purge due to a beef he has with a local nutcase called Skeletor. (Seriously. Skeletor.) On the other side of the law is local drug kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), who is also Nya’s ex. He also disagrees with The Purge, not because of any moral objection, because he does not trust the government to be honest about it – an instinct that turns out to be correct.
As the night of The Purge unfolds, things quickly spiral out of the control of The New Founding Fathers. Crimes are not committed according to the models developed by The Architect and white supremacist militias sneak into Staten Island to indulge their hatred. Truths are discovered (including the real reason behind The Purge’s creation) and The Purge as we know it from the original movies is born.
While films such as Get Out and the classic 90’s anthology film Tales From The Hood succeeded in delivering a strong social commentary on how minorities are treated in America through the lens of horror, The First Purge only manages this momentarily. The opening five minutes are the most uncomfortable, resembling an ordinary 10 o’clock news report. When the film succeeds in delivering its message, it is phenomenal. However, these moments are few and far between, surrounded by scene after scene of various cliches born of the earlier films in the franchise, such as endless chases as our heroes struggle to evade one persistent big bad. Throw in the usual stock characters, such as “the bad guy with no scruples who suddenly becomes the hero the world needs” and “the strong independent woman who don’t need a man, who suddenly needs a man to help her but refuses to admit it out of pride” and some bizarre acting choices and you have one conflicted film.
The most bizarre moments in this movie come from some the most blatant product placement in cinematic history. For instance, Isaiah has a poster for the upcoming 2018 version of Halloween on his bedroom wall. Both The Purge films and the new Halloween are Blumhouse Productions films. While it is fairly typical for a production company to put posters advertising their earlier works in the backgrounds of movies, doing this to promote a movie that hasn’t come out yet is something else. This is nothing, however, compared to the post credits sequence, which interrupts the closing credits to give us a commercial for the upcoming USA Network ten-part event mini-series The Purge.
Yes, this film has a commercial for its own television spin off!
The First Purge is not all bad, however. When the movie works – both as a horror movie and as social commentary – it works well. Some of the moments depicted during the experiment can be uncomfortable to watch, as they honestly appear to be producing the biggest snuff film ever, particularity during a bit I can only describe as “The Piñata.” And the moment where the truth behind The Purge is revealed is still a sucker punch in the gut, even if it does seem to have been obvious in hindsight.
Strangely enough, the creepiest element of the movie is the eyes of those participating in the experiment. They are given specially-coded contact lenses with built-in cameras, which are used to record their actions and broadcast them on live television. The participants who wear these have eerie glowing eyes – an incredibly creepy effect that some cosplayers will no doubt attempt to duplicate.
If you are a fan of the The Purge franchise, then you will enjoy this entry. If you’re not already a fan, The First Purge probably won’t win you over. It does answer some questions about its world and has some effective scares. However, I think it is time for The Purge franchise to purge itself.