Billed as a prequel to The Purge and its subsequent sequels The First Purge takes place on Staten Island where the New Founding Fathers are performing a sociological experiment to curb civil unrest. There is rising dissent in the community. Most residents, including a high-level drug dealer Dmitri, Nya and her brother Isaiah are all resisting the urge to Purge. However, as we know from the other Purge movies, the Purge is used as a political tool and gangs of military, hate groups and mercenaries descend on the boroughs to kill the impoverished civilians. It is now up to Dmitri, Nya, Isaiah and everyone in the community to band together to fight off swarms of military to protect what is theirs.
This is the standard Purge story, a group of survivors must get through the 12 hours of Purge night. The story, however, feels secondary to the haunted house style scares and excessive stylised violence that is depicted on screen. The narrative is the thing that gets us from gruesome act to gruesome act, but apart from that, it fades into the background due to its simplistic nature. We already know that the experiment is a success, we also know how it is being used by corrupt government officials. Nothing is added to the formula of The Purge other than its new focus on a community of people of colour rather than the privileged families, politicians and off-duty police that we’ve had in the previous films.
The film is undoubtedly stylish; the movie pays attention to its set and costume design like previous films, leading to that nation-sized haunted house that we are all familiar with. However, The First Purge is also clumsy. The story, performances and dialogue take a back seat to the look of the film, as there are moments in the movie due to the acting or the delivery that make you cringe. There is a protest chant against the experiment that just does not scan at all. The film uses stoke screams, scene transitions are lacklustre and there is that constant jump scare sound where the scare is aimed toward the audience and not the characters in the film.
There are good moments in the film of course, Dmitri played by Y’lan Noel is an excellent action hero. He has an effortless charisma that could have shone in something that wasn’t so focused on psychos in dress up. This is especially true of The Raid like climax when Dmitri must fight his way up an apartment block and there is a one take fight scene on the stairwell. Other than Dmitri, we have Nya and Isaiah who are not so much characters as vessels for the audience to live the purge. Isaiah wanders round deserted streets wearing glowing contacts, gormlessly getting scared by people in windows and being hunted by a cartoonish villain, appropriately named after a cartoon character, Skeletor. Then we have Delorous who is fantastic but exists in some other movie entirely.
Finally, we get on to the political message. We all know that The Purge has never been subtle with its political metaphor, but in today’s current political environment the dystopian nightmare feels too real and close. Halfway through one stylish murder sequence I hoped that Donald Trump wasn’t watching because he might think that this is a good idea. There is something about The Purge series that wants its cake and eat it too. It decries the Purge as something evil and wrong, something to use to criticise the current state of America, but it spends half the runtime glamourising that same violence and racism. In The First Purge there are countless shots of the Ku Klux Klan and other white national groups in slow-motion driving through the streets of Staton Island.
The First Purge feels formulaic. We have seen all of this before, the odd costumes, the Halloween Haunt aesthetic and the political sledgehammer that more often than not either hits too on the nail or hits itself in the face. It is still stylish and will bring you all the things that you can expect from a Purge movie. It is a functional film for what it is, an excuse to show hyperviolent trick or treaters. Other than that it lacks in a lot of the other basic areas, like story and character. If you want something to help vent then the purge may be a movie for you, but we will probably get the same movie in a year or two until that franchise is exhausted.
You can watch The First Purge in cinemas now