I’ve never thought much of the “Purge” films. I know the first one had great potential, but failed to stick the landing, and they got progressively better from there. “The Purge: Election Year” was a film I planned to see but never did, but I respected what it was trying to do: Tackle in some small way the political climate surrounding the yearly Purge, a period of time where all crime is legal for 12 hours because apparently humans are inherently violent and they need the catharsis, even if it was done under the guise of a mostly shitty Blumhouse horror flick.
And thus, I have revealed my hand, which is empty. Coming into the new “Purge” movie, “The First Purge,” I lacked any prior viewing of the previous three films, figuring that this might be the perfect time to jump into the series because it’s a prequel. This film poises itself to answer the question of how the Purge started, complete with advertisements boasting a portrayal of America very similar to our own, red “Make America Great Again” hats and all.
And this made me curious. There are many dystopian film series these days, ushered in by the success of the now-irrelevant “Hunger Games” series, and they all have one thing in common: They rarely dare to properly address how the world got into the sorry state that it’s in, and if it does, it’s usually lackluster and completely implausible, breaking the illusion of realism these gritty survival films try to make you believe in order for you to enjoy the film. Smart dystopian films leave this backstory as a mystery while focusing on making their own insane worlds as real as they can, based on their own internal logic, especially if they have horror elements to them.
I didn’t quite know what to expect coming into this film, other than that the horror was probably bad — this is a Blumhouse film, after all — but I had no idea that it’d be this bad.
Before I proceed, I’m going to compile a list of everything I expected from this film, based on the marketing and anyone with common-sense with this premise should feel obliged to address:
- This is a prequel with a horrific, set-in-stone conclusion. Blumhouse already made three films that have reputations of being by the books. In order for people to care about these films, you need to inject something more, and in the sense of a true prequel, you need tragedy. You need iron-clad reasons for why America has chosen to enact the Purge, and seeing as the company has marketed it so aggressively to being the closest film to today’s era, it was pretty much a given that it would draw from modern-world problems. A minimum of 20 minutes setting up the Purge, if not more. Ideally, the first Purge portion could even have been half the film, allowing Blumhouse to carefully set up each character so when they die, their deaths actually have impact. Good characters also make for good horror, because there’s stakes involved.
- This film needs smart social commentary outside of “humans are inherently violent” and that there are psychopaths in the world, and they’re scary. Ideally a good villain or two, with crystal clear motivations could have been a great way to communicate this. In a world seemingly falling apart at the seems (the real world, not the movie world), there are many believable scenarios in which Blumhouse could have portrayed the world trying out a Purge, most likely one where a demagogue like President Donald Trump tricks the nation into enacting a fake solution to a fake problem.
- I expected some fun money shot and some Purge action/horror scenes, even if they were smaller than what you would see in your average blockbuster — the Blumhouse model is to produce these films as cheaply as possible in order to always skim by with at least a basic profit, after all.
What I got was a drab, easy-to-make, safe, uninteresting, marketable mess of a film that apparently couldn’t even bother to hire a decent screenwriter or a director, because this film constantly violates the rule of show don’t tell.
Some necessary context: The first Purge, dubbed “The Experiment” is told to us in the very first scene of the movie as being already voted on and passed, introduced by a new political party called The New Founding Fathers of America. We don’t see their rise to power or how The Experiment was passed, which for the film is contained in Staten Island, New York, and lasts for 12 hours. Citizens are incentivised to stay on the island, as merely staying on the island gets you $5,000, and “participating” further earns you greater compensation.
Doing the math, Staten island has a population of 479,458, meaning that that would mean the government would have to give a minimum payout of $2,397,290,000. Yeah right, apparently the government can’t even afford to pay for a single payer health care system. You could make the argument that you only get the money if you survive, but that money could also be gained by others who increase their “participation.”
Anyways, strike one. We’re told why the Purge is happening, not shown it, and when we do find out what were the true motivations of the NFFA, whom I understand are the Umbrella Corporation of this series, they come off as silly, uninspired, and I’m just going to say it.
The real villain of “The First Purge” is some guy in a suit. This guy, in particular:
In fact, our villain’s motivation is revealed to us as a plot twist, and it makes absolutely no sense. It’s laughable, even.
Our villain’s motivation is … the government is trillions of dollars in debt, and it can’t support its lower class, so it’s solution is to get trillions more dollars in debt to create a Purge in which they can all kill each other, in a zone where the government can just hire mercenaries dressed up as gangs to kill the remainders.
This is the crux of all the problems of the movie: It’s not smart, it’s not scary, it’s not fun: It’s just stupid and it’s played straight up. I didn’t even get into our main characters, who are part of a Black community led by Dmitri [last name missing] (Y’lan Noel), comprised of the nurturing surrogate mother figure, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), and her little brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), who stays on the island against his sister’s wishes to get back at a bully figure named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), and a million disposable goons. Dmitri is a drug-dealing gang leader, and he plans to sit the Purge out, weary that the government is going to use it as an opportunity to get rid of him and everything he’s built for his community. Along the way, he comes into contact with violent Purgers, the government, and even traitors in his ranks.
And I have to say, Dmitri works as a character, and he’s the best thing about this film. He’s caring and compassionate for his people, but also skeptical about the world around him, especially the Purge, and is extremely competent to the point where he wields his crew like a scalpel and honestly should have been fine throughout the entire movie. In fact, he’s so competent, the only way the film can arbitrarily get him into a desperate situation because horror is to throw implausible bullshit at him that completely breaks the realism of the film.
And it gets so stupid.
So few images are released from this film, so I’m going to have to describe these scenes to you. I’ll call this next section, “Stupidest scenes from ‘The First Purge.'”
Scene I: Dmitri and his underling are driving through the streets of Staten Island, marvelling at how unruly everything is. They see a man fucking a woman on the hood of a car out in the open for apparently no reason (this is also risky, because anyone could kill them with no repercussions … in fact, people are monetarily incentivised to kill people like them). This distracts them for a split second, so as to not notice a flaming ice cream truck that’s headed right for them, which hits them and makes them get into a car accident. Dmitri awakens to see a gang shoot up the exposed lovers car with assault rifles, at which point Dmitri ambushes one, steals his assault rifle, and murders them all.
Scene II: Some prior context to this one. Dmitri’s gang in a previous scene prove their effectiveness by saving some older members of their community that get in a bit of heat, dubbed “the three wise men” (they never show up again, by the way). Any sane person would use the next scene to show off how awesome Dmitri’s team is, maybe picking a few of them off here and there to build tension. Nope, “The First Purge” needs a random and stupid thing to happen, so the government comes in nowhere and kills all of Dmitri’s gang save for Dmitri himself with literal drones you can buy at the store outfitted with tiny pistols.
It’s as if the writers didn’t know what to write next and decided to pull a “Divergent” and just throw some random curveball at the heroes out of nowhere, even if it made no sense. And speaking of the scene prior to that, in which the wise men are saved, the only reason why they got into that situation was because they were trying to defend themselves with literal hunting rifles, when their enemies, who were wearing KKK outfits mind you, had assault rifles.
And it’s not as if assault rifles were out of their grasp — the film very prominently advertises them in an in-movie billboard marketed towards purgers. It’s a wonder why anyone would go out on the streets with a handheld weapon, or a weapon that could easily run out of ammo.
Scene III: Any early Purge scene. Let me explain. When the Purge first starts, virtually no one is being violent. In fact, they get so few results, that the government has to send in mercenaries to push things along. This is the premise of your entire movie — why would you have the film start out so anticlimacticly? I would imagine that, being that increased “participation” is rewarded, you’d have people thinking of creative ways to kill as many people as possible. You could have cool genocide machines, cool defense rigs. But what we got was Purge block parties and government mercenaires. Hoo-ray.
Scene IV: Any scene with mercenaries/legitimate gangs dressed up as Nazis or the KKK. They’re uninteresting because they’re just introduced as background and aren’t elaborated on further save the ones Dmitri fights, who aren’t supremacists for all we know, just disguised mercenaries. It’s a weak jab to make the film seem socially relevant, but the film doesn’t understand that you have to do more than just make characters dress up as those groups, you have to actually do something with them.
Scene V: Guy-in-a-suit reveals his motivation to scientist woman who was hired to analyze and construct the first Purge, killing her afterwards in a lazy way off-screen. Cringey, nonsensical, and arguably ruins the film.
Now, there are good parts to this film, in particularly the third act where Dmitri turns full John McClane and storms this apartment complex to save his friends from being killed by mercenaries, which has the film’s best cinematography, but they are sabotaged by a nonexistent first act, unclear or underdeveloped character motivations from everyone who isn’t Dmitri, a nonsensical plot, and a story so incompetent that it has to artificially create drama by relying on implausible freak accidents and laughable plot twists in order to get its competent protagonist to a place of almost desperation.
And there are a lot of characters in this film, but almost none of them are worth mentioning because they’re not memorable. Blumhouse thought that its side characters needed two scenes: One scene where they set up a basic trait about them, and one where it pays off in some way. There’s one character that encapsulates this perfectly, who I can’t remember the name of (I’m not even sure if it was mentioned). This character’s sole trait is that he plays basketball, and Dmitri, while watching him playing a game, tells him to keep his “eyes up.” We next see this character dead in the street with some other of Dmitri’s goons, supposedly killed by the government, in which Dmitri reminds his corpse that he should have keep his “eyes up,” and we, as the audience, are supposed to care about this character that we met in one other scene, that all we know about is that he plays basketball.
That’s not enough to build emotional resonance, that’s not even enough to differentiate the character from a prop. Dmitri’s car, which has this blue light under it, has more character and screen time than basketball player man.
These problems point to one fundamental flaw in the movie: For something on the scale this one was on, this needed to be an action movie with a large budget, and not a small horror film. But small horror films are all Blumhouse knows how to make, and while they could have made this a large horror film with massive casualties, doing so would be both a risk from a market perspective, especially in a nation in which mass shootings have become an epidemic, and a financial one, as horror films just don’t get blockbuster returns.
Blumhouse set themselves up for failure by giving “The First Purge” a large sandbox to play in but didn’t know what to fill it with. It has a whole city to work with, but refuses to explore most of it, most likely because they couldn’t because of budget restraints. As a result, the city has no sense of scale and the viewer is constantly confused as to where people are outside of the homes of the heroes. What they needed was a small location we as the audience could know well, and they could have easily done that with this premise. Why have the first Purge on Staten Island? Why not move it to some small, nowhere town where it can easily be contained? “The First Purge” tries to be creepy but falls flat on its face trying to do so, and it has major conflicts with its tone, at some points trying to be a horror film and at others a cheesy action flick starring Dmitri, who is the only saving grace of this film.
It’s too bad that there’s going to be more “Purge” content on its way, as they have a TV series on the way, but hopefully this leads to more action films starring Y’lan Noel.
But overall, I think this series has been purged of all value it ever had.
The First Purge gets a 3/10