Nico’s Movie Review: ‘The First Purge’ Flirts With Good Ideas, Then Ignores Them
I have always had a love/hate relationship with the concept of The Purge series, ever since the first one came out in 2013.
On one hand, it was a unique idea, which is something you rarely see in horror movies anymore. On the other, I felt it was executed so poorly, it makes me wish they didn't even try.
In a way, I feel like The First Purge is a continuation of this.
As the title suggests, The First Purge attempts to explain how The Purge concept was originally sold to the American people. To quickly establish some background for the films, they are set in a dystopian American future where a fascist political party, the New Founding Fathers of America, has taken control of the government, and has established what is called "The Purge": a 12-hour period that takes place every year, in which all crime is legal, up to and including murder.
The stated logic behind this is that if people with criminal tendencies are given free reign once a year, they will avoid committing crimes throughout the rest of the year. And earlier films in this series apparently showed this concept bearing fruit, with a claimed unemployment rate of 1% and a virtually nonexistent crime rate.
Of course, this is absolutely ridiculous and stupid, and would never work in any way in real life. Studies have shown that allowing people to give in to desires, whichever they may be, only results in an increased desire to take part in that behavior; for example, if a pedophile is allowed access to child pornography, it is likely to increase the odds he goes out and molests children.
The Purge concept also completely ignores the fact that even if "purging" behavior was shown to be an effective deterrent to further crime, it would only work on those who could broadly be described as those who get pleasure from harming others or those that are lashing out. So you might see a decrease in school shootings, I'll give them that. However, how would The Purge lead to a decrease in crime caused by drug addiction, or by those suffering mental illnesses? What about domestic crimes, like a man abusing and controlling his girlfriend?
I'm taking time to refute the central concept behind the franchise because these films take themselves so seriously. They constantly act like this is something that could happen in real life, and that's supposed to give us pause and make the films seem more meaningful. The problem is, there's not a snowball's chance in hell something like the Purge could happen, simply because it doesn't work on any conceptual level.
Now on to The First Purge itself. The film begins by giving us the background, and setting the stage for what is initially called "The Experiment"; for one night, all of Staten Island, New York, will become a lawless land where you can do whatever you want. In order to gauge effectiveness, the NFFA party tries to incentivize people to "participate" by paying people to either stay on the island at home or actually go out and "purge" themselves.
This leads to what I feel makes this film marginally more interesting than the rest of the franchise; The First Purge isn't really about The Purge itself, and it even acknowledges at one point that most people would rather have a big block party and maybe steal a television than go out and murder random strangers. The real theme of The First Purge is the ease with which a government can convince its citizenry that bad is good, if the propaganda is right.
These themes made me enjoy this film a little more than I thought I would, but unfortunately they aren't the main focus of the screen-time. Most of the time, the audience follows Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and Isaiah (Joivan Wade), a brother and sister who spend their time trying to survive the night. They're assisted by "D" (played by Y'Lan Noel), a local drug kingpin who used to date Nya. I alternated between enjoying the dynamics in this group and really hating them; at times, its fun and interesting to watch Nya protest against The Purge with a megaphone, or to watch D turn into a black John McClaine. At other times, some of their acting skills leave much to be desired, and I was wishing we could go back to the deeper political messages I mentioned earlier.
The First Purge also does a decent job at setting the environment and tone of an impoverished area of New York City, with lots of colorful dialogue and setpieces (by the way, if you don't like to hear the N-word thrown around casually, this isn't the film for you). There is one jarring exception to this; all of the freaking masks! I get that this has become The Purge franchise's trademark, where everyone out Purging has on a ridiculous getup befitting a supervillain. However, it really grinds my gears to see it in a prequel like this. If it's the first ever Purge, why did everyone decide for SOME REASON that they needed elaborate costumes?
Much like the franchise as a whole, The First Purge is right on the cusp of being fantastic, if it didn't try to hard so self-sabotage. In the right hands, a story about a government using the media and propaganda to carry out what basically amounts to genocide against the poor and minority populations would be a fantastic, deep concept for a movie. Unfortunately, it doesn't go to the lengths it should, and it feels like these themes are more ancillary flavor to the main focus, which is the action and creepy masks.
If you're a fan of The Purge series, you'll definitely be interested in this one as I assume it adds to the lore (I must admit I only saw the first one of the series). If you're not a Purge fan, I suppose it might be worth your time to go see The First Purge, if you've been in the mood for a horror flick. But don't expect anything meaningful, which is a shame.
See the trailer below.