The First Purge is as schlocky and ham-fisted as the Purge films before it, yet its political subtext justifies the franchise's continued existence.
A prequel to the first three Purge films, The First Purge further evolves the series into a full-blown political allegory. Whereas the first Purge was a home invasion thriller that only played so much with its Shirley Jackson-esque horror premise, its sequels have placed a heavier emphasis on their political elements, while at the same time expanding in scope. The First Purge scales things back a bit, but is even more willing than its predecessors to directly reference real-world events and people; even the film's poster clearly riffs on U.S. president Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" hats. However, that doesn't mean the prequel is more intelligent than previous chapters for it. The First Purge is as schlocky and ham-fisted as the Purge films before it, yet its political subtext justifies the franchise's continued existence.
The First Purge goes back in time in the Purge universe to 2014, some years after the U.S. economy went through a crippling recession. With the Democratic and Republican parties unable to turn things around, a party called the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) has risen to power and since proposed a highly controversial "experiment" based on the sociological theories of Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei): make all crime legal for a 12-hour period, in order to allow civilians to "purge" themselves of their anger and stress. Upon gaining public approval for this plan, the NFFA chooses lower-income Staten Island as the setting for the first Purge Night and even offers local residents financial incentive to participate.
However, when Purge Night gets underway, it quickly becomes clear that most of Staten Island's citizens are highly distrustful of the U.S. government's plan, and have little to no desire to "purge" themselves. Knowing that failure is not an option if they want to maintain their grip on power, the NFFA then conspires to make Purge Night a success. As a result, it's not long before everyone from young Isaiah (Joivan Wade) and his sister Nya (Lex Scott Davis) to local crime boss/Nya's ex-boyfriend Dmitri (Y'Lan Noel) are forced to fight for their lives.
Written by The Purge 1-3 filmmaker James DeMonaco, The First Purge is a survive-the-night thriller in the same vein as its predecessors, its political metaphors aside (more on that later). DeMonaco doesn't aspire to re-invent the wheel when it comes to his narrative formula on The Purge series, either, and instead sticks with his familiar blend of character drama, gory horror violence, and clear-cut social commentary. The First Purge is certainly more blunt in the way it voices its political concerns, but it's not necessarily more precise in the way it weaves together commentary with horror/thriller entertainment. All the same, the film mostly succeeds at being standalone in its design, while at the same time further building out Blumhouse's Purge franchise mythology in (again, for the most part) intriguing ways.
(And speaking of Blumhouse franchises: keep your eyes peeled for a Halloween 2018 easter egg early on in the film.)
Like the plot, the characters of The First Purge tend to be both by the numbers and under-developed in their design. Most of the film's heroes further remain static over the course of the film, with the exception of Dmitri, who gets a pretty satisfying arc as he comes to learn the truth about The Purge and what the NFFA is really up to. Similarly, the villains here are largely cartoony in their design, be it Patch Darragh as the Sean Spicer-esque NFFA Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian or Rotimi Paul as the unhinged "Skeletor" (one of the few people who turns to violence during Purge Night of their own free will). They serve their purpose in the movie, but it's difficult to become invested emotionally in the heroes in particular - as they become increasingly secondary to the bloody spectacle of Purge Night, over the course of the story.
The First Purge is like the other Purge films in that sense, even with a new director in Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands) calling the shots, rather than DeMonaco. McMurray and cinematographer Anastas N. Michos (who did additional photography on The Purge: Election Night) use many of the same lurid colors to bring The Purge universe to life as the movies before it, all while capturing its violence in brutal, sensationalized detail. The film's pace thus starts to drag as it gets bogged down in the mayhem (effectively nasty it may be), in-between the more compelling dramatic scenes. That being said, The First Purge does pick up some momentum in its third act thanks to its climax (which revolves around what is easily the best-staged set piece in the film).
At the end of the day, The First Purge has the same fundamental problem as the three Purge movies before it - namely, it's not quite clever enough in execution to realize the potential of its premise. While the film deserves props for exploring big topics like how people can be coerced into crime and how governments can control their citizens through systematic oppression (based on factors that include race and class), it struggles to use horror/thriller movie tropes to offer fresh insight and/or say something really meaningful about these issues. As such, its direct nods to real-life events like Charlottesville and jabs at the NRA and Trump administration are well-intended, but come off as heavy handed, rather than searing observations.
For these reasons, The First Purge makes for another serviceable addition to The Purge franchise, but not necessarily one that raises the bar for the horror/thriller property overall. At the same time, those who've appreciated how the series has gradually moved away from the nihilism of its earlier installments, and gone heavier on the political allegory with each passing film, may find The First Purge to be one of the better chapters yet. Similarly, for those who are curious about the series but have avoided jumping aboard The Purge bandwagon just yet, this mostly self-contained prequel is as good an entry point as any to finally find out if this particular Blumhouse IP is your cup of tea. It may even leave you interested to watch the impending Purge TV event series.
The First Purge is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 97 minutes long and is rated R for strong disturbing violence throughout, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use.
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- The First Purge/The Purge 4 (2018) release date: Jul 04, 2018