Let’s be honest, did anybody see The Purge (2013) and expect sequels? They are built upon a ridiculous premise and the series started with, what is essentially, a poorly done home invasion thriller with a poor script and lazy direction. But, the first film was such a commercial success that Universal has since released three follow-ups: Anarchy (2014), Election Year (2016), and now The First Purge (2018).
Both Anarchy and Election were improvements on the original, not only did they both do interesting (if implausible) things with the premise, but they also had better scripts and improved direction, largely due to bigger budgets and the freedom that grants to shoot more outdoors scenes. The First Purge now deals with how the concept of the Purge, a night annually which laws cease to exist and individuals can gain catharsis from committing crimes, began. If you think that this would make for an entertaining film, you’re set to be sorely mistaken.
The Purge was introduced in response to American crime becoming rampant across the country. The New Founding Fathers introduce the Purge as an idea from Marisa Tomei’s Dr May Updale. It is introduced as an experiment on Staten Island, New York and what ensues is a night of both terror and opportunity for gang leader Dimitri (Y’Lan Noel) his disapproving ex-girlfriend (Lex Scott Davis) and his son Isaiah (Jovian Wade).
Credit where it’s due, exploring how a society could embrace such an absurd system could make for a solid satire. The First Purge’s mismanaged priorities wastes the premise. A news montage skips through the preliminary politics until the day of the Purge. Any attempt at complex world-building is discarded for the opportunity to make painfully obvious jabs at political figures: Purgers dress in Klan uniform, American soldiers resemble Gestapo agents, and even Trump’s sexual assault allegations are referenced.
Bad political commentary is nothing new for the series, at least the previous films were saved by interesting world-building. The in-universe exposition in this film reveals nothing that was not already made clear in the previous films, which makes every scene with the government higher ups painfully tedious. To make matters worse, the plot feels both convoluted and simplistic, as we follow about seven different story threads that end up amounting to nothing. Some of them even get resolved so early that the third act has little to and the action-packed climax is a total non-event. When the film ends abruptly, you realise that nothing of worth has been said.
The poor narrative could have been carried by strong performances, but that is also lacking. Both Y’Lan Noel and Lex Scott Davis are painfully average and blandly characterised to boot. Jovian Wade does a decent job as a teen in over his head, but he is not an effective lead. Marisa Tomei is wasted, as her character has little to do and soon gets removed clunkily. The only redeeming performance is Rotimi Paul’s Skeletor, a villain who is so over the top and crazy that he lights up the screen whenever he appears.
The films cinematography is a mixed bag as the general look is decent and there are plenty of nice looking shots, including a few effective Dutch angles. A redeeming sequence comes as a staircase fight is well choreographed and close-quartered enough to be intense and involving. But, there are some bizarre choices made like a randomly fade to black, lots of painfully fake CGI blood, several seizure inducing flashing during the climax and some awkward extreme close-ups. Director Gerald McMurry feels ill-equipped to handle a film of this nature and struggles to conceal budgetary restrictions instead revealing the artifice of filmmaking. However, the most obnoxious moments are easily the jump scares, it feels like there are at least 10 and they all consist of people coming out of nowhere with a musical stinger; they got old immediately.
The First Purge is easily the most bland and forgettable film in this series so far. This is a standard action thriller without much in the way of character or story, both of which are incredibly boring to boot. Whilst perhaps a little better than the first film, it is a waste of a promising idea and just an overall pointless film. I can only hope the upcoming TV series ends up being more interesting.