For the fourth time in a row, a Purge movie has fallen severely short of its potential. The First Purge is a slight improvement on Election Year but a big step down from the already flawed original two films, and it’s remarkable that after so many years, virtually none of the series’ core problems, including the awful dialogue, heavy-handed messaging, questionable world building, and unmemorable action, have been addressed. Worse yet, The First Purge actually makes the previous three films less interesting in retrospect.
The original Purge had a fascinating concept at its core. The conceit of murder being legal for one night a year wasn’t really the key; instead, what was so compelling was the idea that if murder was temporarily made legal, people you know might take advantage of that. If this is true, suddenly, you have no idea who to trust. It’s a real “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” scenario, and the third act tosses aside the “horror movie” villains in favor of the neighbors, who we would never suspect to be capable of such horrifying atrocities. We like to think we have a clear idea of who around us has our best interests at heart, but The Purge suggests there’s no way of knowing who might unleash the beast in March of each year.
For whatever reason, James DeMonaco seemed to immediately grow bored of that idea. The Purge: Anarchy began to establish that the annual ceremony is more a way for the government to eliminate the poor population. In fact, there aren’t even enough people participating in the Purge at all to the point that the government is actually sending people out into the streets themselves. Election Year doubled down on making the series more of a political thriller, with the whole plot revolving around an attempt to defeat the New Founding Fathers in an election that, surprisingly, occurs exactly like ours (except for weirdly taking place in June, for some reason).
This creates a lot of problems. The Purge is such a ridiculous concept that trying to apply logic to it and make it seem like something that could be right around the corner makes for one hell of an unintentionally goofy series. By having scenes where real news reporters talk about the Purge or politicians hold debates about its merits, we’re asked to examine this universe rather than just turn off our brains and accept it as the silly backdrop of another story, and as soon as our brains are on, we don’t like what we find. How the hell is it that the New Founding Fathers appear to be a dictatorial government instituting a yearly murder ceremony, yet they also are re-elected in a completely legitimate democratic process every four years? Why is there such low participation in the Purge to the point that the NFFA has to get involved, yet also the Purge is something everyone apparently supports and keeps voting for?
There actually could be a timely story to be told here about Americans’ willingness to accept horrifying violence occurring outside of their field-of-view and not caring about it until they’re directly affected, but none of the movies have fully explored that, and we don’t have any clear idea of why the American population supported the Purge for so long. As is, DeMonaco is just sort of vaguely giving us the outline of some Very Important Ideas while not really doing much with them or having anything worthwhile or coherent to say.
You may disagree, but to me, the Purge as a premise works a lot better as an excuse to tell a different, smaller story rather than the Purge itself being the story, which is why the original film is far superior to the sequels. I was initially excited about the idea of expanding the world in The Purge: Anarchy, but as the series has gone on, it has become increasingly clear that DeMonaco has no idea what he is doing, and I now long for the days of being locked in that house with Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey.
DeMonaco seems to have no interest of ever returning to the fear and paranoia of the original film, though, and by The First Purge, he has undermined the very premise that this franchise was built on. In this new movie, we discover that the first time the Purge ever took place, nobody really cared to participate, so the NFFA just hired people to go out and commit murder. Don’t worry about being distrustful of everyone you see, either, because their eyes are all conveniently glowing so you can identify them. The main villains are just a bunch of guys with guns hired by the government.
So basically, this is now a series of movies where generic dudes with guns hired by the government go into the streets to kill a bunch of poorly written characters, and they try to fight back. That’s it. The “what if all crime were legal for 12 hours” thing barely comes into play anymore.
I don’t even know that it’s worth getting into all of this specific movie’s problems, as they’re the exact same issues that plagued Election Year. It is noteworthy, though, that this film has the best action of the series by far, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s also the only movie in the series not directed by DeMonaco. However, newcomer Gerard McMurray can’t overcome DeMonaco’s laugh-out-loud dialogue, which is even more cringe-worthy than normal bad dialogue because he obviously think it’s profound.
Once again, the world of the movie is absolutely insane. Just try to imagine how news outlets like CNN would really react if the Trump Administration decided to turn Staten Island into a lawless wasteland for 12 hours. Then contrast that with Van Jones interviewing the psychologist behind the Purge in one of the opening scenes, during which he’s not concerned about asking her why this ceremony is morally wrong; he just wants to know whether it’s being motivated by politics. Look, I’m not normally one to go all CinemaSins on every movie I see, and I’m perfectly willing to accept a ludicrous premise if the result is some good fun. But that’s not what’s happening here, and it’s obvious at this point that DeMonaco is the only person alive who doesn’t realize that he’s making trash.
Typically, the trajectory of a horror movie franchise is that it gets a lot more ridiculous and over-the-top as it goes. But weirdly, the Purge has sort of been moving in the opposite direction, slowly devolving from a solid but pretty goofy first movie into a terrible action series that has no interest in the premise that originally hooked us anymore. The First Purge isn’t the worst of the series, but it’s perhaps the most disappointing, and it leaves me with no faith that the franchise is ever going to get back on track.