The premise of the Purge franchise is an intriguing one; for 12 hours once a year, all crime is legal, with the claim that this horrific holiday will lower the crime rate. For me, the film that most successfully used the premise was Purge: Anarchy (2014), as it takes place primarily in the open as the world erupts into purging. These films have always had a level of social commentary that was far from subtle, but The First Purge (2018) slams its point into your face, wanting you to know that there are no laws on this night.
The First Purge can’t wait to make sure audiences know what it is trying to say
This prequel film starts two days before the “experiment”, which will test the rules of the purge on Staten Island, New York. The New Founding Fathers of America have been elected to the presidency and are trying to make a change. To ensure participation in the purge, people are being offered large sums of money for staying on the island and even more financial compensation for their active participation. The film moves around from a few characters who are against the purge and the blatant classism that is on display, but each has their own reasons for resisting.
This film doesn’t feel like a horror movie, although the first three did. The idea is horrifying, and the connections to our current administration the film makes feel all the more real. However, the tone of the film is more of a B-action movie, which had me laughing out loud at the choreography of some of the action sequences. It’s no fault to Y’lan Noel, who plays Dmitri – the head of a gang who gets to partake in most of the action in the film. He is definitely an action star in the making, but this film goes a little too stylistic, having characters dual wielding assault rifles and posting after kills.
The emotional crux of the story are Nya (Lex Scott Davis), who is a community leader rallying against the New Founding Fathers, and her brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), who desperately wants to improve their living situation. Isaiah has been working one of Dmitri’s corners, and gets into it with a dope fiend named “Skeletor” (Rotimi Paul). Isaiah decides to ignore his sister’s request for him to leave the island, and looks to earn some money and seek his revenge. It’s a plot point that feels rushed at times, and a missed opportunity overall.
The characters take a back seat in this Purge in order to push the obvious commentary to the extreme. I don’t feel any of the following statement is a spoiler, unless you’ve never seen any of the other films (as this has been the general idea of the films) – this night of lawlessness exists so the people in power can eliminate those without culling the population, and alleviate many of the “problems” the NFFA sees with the country. However, The First Purge wants to make sure that everyone watching is getting the filmmaker’s blatant commentary. Unfortunately, the lack of subtlety does make the film less enjoyable overall.
Ultimately, the First Purge is one of the lesser entries in the series, but still a watchable movie. The performances are committed and strong, and honestly, the dialogue was never unbelievable – with maybe the exception of Skeletor. Of course, he’s calling himself Skeletor, so his mental state is in question from the beginning of the film…so maybe his delivery just fits. Either way, the film wasn’t as good as it could have been, missing the opportunity to innovatively deliver a compelling plot in lieu of getting straight to the root of what the whole franchise has been doing. The First Purge earns the Not a Total Waste of Time rating.