Among the many things wrong with The First Purge, the fourth in the series of films about a totalitarian future America where lawlessness is allowed for one night a year as a way to keep the crime rate low the other 12 months, is its depiction of Staten Island. While New York City’s fifth (and often forgotten) borough certainly has its rougher areas–two of them, St. George and Stapleton, are namechecked in the film–Staten Island not only has some of the lowest crime rates and highest median incomes in the city, but it’s the only borough to reliably vote Republican in nearly every presidential election of the past few decades.
But in this movie (and the first not directed by The Purge creator James DeMonaco, who still wrote the screenplay), the island seems like one big, drug-ridden housing project with no redeeming value and that’s ready to be sealed off as the perfect venue for the “experiment.” Yes, The First Purge is a prequel that depicts how the annual event came to be, starting as a voluntary sociological test launched by reigning political power the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) and designed by Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei, slumming between Spider-Man movies), who cynically offer island residents $5,000 each to stay the night while the very first Purge rages around them.
The fact that The First Purge is a prequel robs it, of course, of any suspense or unpredictability: We know that the Purge is going to become an annual, national event, we’ve seen it in three previous films, so there’s no real tension over how this movie ends. What the picture is also robbed of is any sense of humanity or responsibility: already on thin ice thematically, this series hits a shabby, shallow bottom here, pitting stock characters we don’t care about against each other and a sinister bureaucracy in a way that ensures they do the dumbest things possible at all times to move the story forward.
Despite its ostensibly liberal leanings of the movie’s filmmakers–the NFFA is nothing if not a logical extension of the theocratic, personality-based dictatorship this country currently finds itself teetering on the edge of–The First Purge explicitly plays on racial anxiety again and again. The very first shot in the movie is a grinning, scarred, black face, the visage of a neighborhood lunatic named Skeletor who can’t wait to Purge and who attaches hypodermics to his knuckles as a weapon. He’s the living embodiment of white fear, even though the only white people we see in the movie are pretty much all evil motherfuckers as well.
At the same time, the apparent hero of the movie is Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), a local drug kingpin who we’re supposed to believe suddenly begins to care for the neighborhood, even though he’s worked so hard to profit from its destruction. The movie wrings nothing new out of the “drug lord with a heart of gold” stereotype except to turn him into a John McClane-like one-man army, while none of its other principal characters–primarily wannabe Purger Isaiah (Joivan Wade) and his activist sister and onetime Dmitri moll Nya (Lex Scott Davis)–offer anything beyond their surface impressions.
The movie brings up one potentially provocative idea: what if people refuse to Purge, casting doubt over the whole enterprise? It’s the film’s one interesting thought, as TV reports initially report some mild looting and robbery while most of Staten Island either stays home or in some cases stages block parties instead. Of course this leads to the dark solution that the NFFA deploys to ensure that its experiment succeeds, and being that the film’s marketing is reliant on watching a Purge happen (just like the NFFA itself), the suggestion that basic humanity and decency could prevail over a government-sponsored period of chaos is tossed aside in favor of soulless, stupid carnage.
What we end up with is just one long, violent, pitched battle, staged artlessly and shot in muddy darkness by new series director Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands) and designed to create the same kind of amoral catharsis as the Purge itself. In a strange way, The First Purge is a lot like the current drug trafficking sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, in that both films depict empty people doing terrible things to each other over and over again with no larger point or meaning (and often dressed in shock-horror masks and costumes, which seem even more ridiculous in this context).
Unlike 2016’s The Purge: Election Year, which ended with the overthrow of the NFFA and the presumed cancellation of the Purge, The First Purge doesn’t even have the courage of its convictions to follow through with what should be the ending. Instead it gives us a hollow and meaningless victory of sorts that is supposed to send the audience out feeling slightly better about the dreadful, dreary, tone-deaf mess they just watched.
A film like this would have been released by a company like AIP or Cannon in the ‘70s, on the bottom of a grindhouse or drive-in double bill created solely for exploitative purposes. Here, the producers and filmmakers behind the series (which include Jason Blum along with Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes) want to have their rancid cake and eat it too, taking that same exploitative material and pouring some tasteless social awareness topping over it. Worst of all is the actual commercial for this fall’s The Purge “television event” that comes during the movie’s end credits: at least Marvel disguises its ads for future entries as narrative scenes. The makers of The First Purge don’t even bother to try.
The First Purge is out in theaters Wednesday, July 4, should you choose to celebrate its arrival.