The Purge first arrived in 2013, bolstering the brilliant premise of an event in time where all crime would be considered as legal. In-general, I think we can all admit that a lot of horror franchises tend to milk themselves for all their worth or overstay their welcome, but every now and again, a concept like The Purge arrives that makes sense for the long-haul. The possibilities and angles you could take The Purge are virtually limitless. It could implement elements of a home-invasion horror, which is something we saw in the original film, or incorporate traits of a slasher flick, something seen on some level in the fourth film. It has a lot of ways you could tackle it, but one way, from what we’ve seen so far, it can’t be tackled, is very well.
When the first film arrived, it squandered the potential its concept had, and, as I wrote in my review on Mishmashers at the time of its release, it amounted to a Below-Average film. In 2014, I believe they righted their wrongs on a lot of levels. Although The Purge: Anarchy opted for a more action-oriented approach, it at least was able to capture a liveliness and did attempt to realize its concept. My favorite scene from that film involved a swinging pendulum that nearly kills the main-character, and when it doesn’t, it’s met with disappointed reactions from the perpetrators. The reason I liked it is because that’s what I wanted from Purge as a series, a depraved world that doesn’t understand the extent of its misdeeds and allows for a day of uncontrolled chaos. Not only that, but I believed the aesthetic and the amount of people involved would have made fodder for some intense and inspired horror. Imagine a scene where the main-protagonist is being chased around by a madman, and the camera pans out far enough to show several people are experiencing the same thing at the same time. Or escaping one madman only to find another.
The concept really made sense and even if I only rated Purge: Anarchy as an Above-Average horror film in my review on Mishmashers, I was very invested and excited about what it could possibly pave the way for. It was then, however, in 2016 that The Purge: Election Year officially ended any level of excitement or expectation I had of the series. The characters participating in The Purge were ridiculously over-the-top and cheesy, and not only that, but it simply wasn’t a very fun film. If I had to narrow it down to one singular issue I have with the series, it’s that it has such a surrealist concept and yet, instead of exploiting that concept as a means to make bone-shattering, self-contained and unique horror, it opts to spend most of its time explaining itself, trying to make sense of something when the answer is so ham-fisted and uninteresting. Regardless, I always knew The Purge series would carry on. While The Purge fell only a small amount shy of 90 million at the box-office, Anarchy was able to cross the 100 million threshold, and Election Year was able to barely surpass Anarchy, grossing nearly 120 million worldwide. Each year the series surpasses itself, and with The First Purge making nearly 140 million worldwide, I don’t anticipate this will be the last we see of the franchise in theaters.
The First Purge is liberating in some respect. Theoretically speaking, it allows the franchise to free itself from the shackles of its convoluted and political narrative, opting instead to focus on the audacity of the concept as it’s implemented. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really happen. Once more, like what plagues much of the series, The First Purge is very heavy-handed with its political undertones, unable to really conceal itself through nuance, it’d much rather beat you over the head with its themes and agenda. I think what I would prefer to see from the series at any point, is a random year of the Purge, not focusing on anything except the survival of its characters. Then again, I understand the series’ marketing campaign has often directly exploited its political themes, and that might very well be why the series is the only horror that has had its films improve on themselves from a box-office perspective three consecutive times. After watching The First Purge, I can say, with the fullest certainty, that I believe it is an improvement over Election Year, but is it a good film?
The film once more focuses a lot more on why it chooses to legalize the purge and the scrutiny that ensues thereafter in its regards. I will say that I like the way the film tries to provide answers and present a plausible explanation for itself. The concept of overpopulation and finite resources is a conversation relevant in today’s age and the film continues to double-down on the idea that the New Founding Fathers of America are targeting the lower middle-class. The First Purge is an experiment on Staten Island, and although many citizens decide to leave before the purge ensues, the NFFA convinces many people to stay by offering a financial reward of $5,000, as well as further compensation for active participation in the experiment. I think this was a clever touch, although, I will mention the film does have some screwball dialogue that leaves some to be desired. It isn’t anything as bad as the “candy bar” nonsense from the last film, but I do remember one of the activists spouting that they wouldn’t be coaxed into the purge and that the NFFA knew full well poor people would stay if they were offered financial compensation. … Yeah, that’s kind-of why they did it. They offered money so people would stay knowing that people who’d need money would stay, and while saying you won’t be coaxed into it, you are, in-fact, playing right into their hand.
There’s four stories at-play worth acknowledging when talking about the film’s plot. There’s the bigwigs monitoring The Purge, who need it to be a success and are willing to exert themselves to make that happen. There’s Isaiah, an angry teenager who is desperate for financial gain to free himself and his sister from their shoddy living conditions, that is actively trying to target a person named Skeletor. That person Skeletor is a crazed drug-addict who is actively partaking in the purge in-order to engage in a killing spree, which is the third central story in the film’s plot. And, finally, we have our main-protagonist, Dimitri, a gang-leader, who finds himself in a position to protect the civilians of Staten Island.
The intermingling storylines, while, although nothing to write home about, are mostly fine. Isaiah being angry and, at the same time, having too much of a moral conscience to kill, is a familiar, but finely executed theme, and it’s expected, but fine as well, that the NFFA would be involved in tampering with the result of the purge experiment. As for Skeletor, that character borders in the same unlikeable territory as what was seen in Election Year, seeming over-the-top and cartoonish. Dimitri’s character, or, more specifically, Y’lan Noel, the actor who played him, is actually my favorite part about the film, because I feel he had a very likable and charismatic personality to him that elevated the film. Whether or not a gang-leader would have the altruism or loyalty to his city to protect them and expend his gang-members to do so is neither here nor there, but the portrayal to character did feel consistent and authentic.
The film doesn’t offer much in the way of enticing visuals or memorable, distinguishable moments worthy of being singled out. A lot of that is because the film tries more at being an action-film than it does a horror. That said, it doesn’t offer a lot of action worth singling out either. I would call it a very conventional and standard in that regard akin to the rest of the series.
In conclusion, The First Purge isn’t to The Purge: Election Year the knee-jerk reaction that The Purge: Anarchy was after the awful first film in the series, but it is a considerable improvement in-terms of sheer functionality. It still makes a lot of the same mistakes that plague the series, but I think it amounts to an average film overall. Below The Purge: Anarchy and above the first film. I never actually wrote a review of Election Year, but, with that film being my least favorite, you can imagine that this film is considerably better.