Now, its time for an experiment that Marisa Tomeis Dr. Updale, a scientist working with the NFFA, promises will give the American people the outlet they need for all their hate, anger, and aggression. Theres an unintentionally silly scene late in the movie when Updale, seeing the actual results of her experiment, utters dramatically, What have I done? Its unclear what results she was expecting from this whole thing.
The movie centers on a handful of characters on New Yorks Staten Island, the isolated site of this first, experimental Purge. (Through their public representative Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh), the government issues some hazy explanation about the islands demographics being representative of the country as a whole, but behind closed doors the NFFA readily admit they just want to kill poor people.)
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But when the would-be Purgers throw block parties instead of tearing one another apart, the NFFA sends in militaristic bands of mercenaries dressed in the regalia of the KKK, white supremacist biker gangs, and masked, Nazi-like soldiers. At times,The First Purgeis hard to watch, and not in the fun way that horror movies are supposed to make you hide behind splayed fingers. Whatever thin veil of subtlety this series ever possessed is gone from this movie, murdered by flocks of heavily armed drones the New Founding Fathers of America sent to make sure the citizens of Staten Island participated in the experiment.
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Dmitri (Ylan Noel) is a drug kingpin who wants to keep his neighborhood safe while protecting his product and his business. Nya (Lex Scott Davis) is his ex-girlfriend, a conscientious protestor who opposes the experiment. Her little brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), was supposed to get off the island, but secretly stayed behind to get revenge on Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), a violent drug addict who attacked and humiliated him. These characters and those surrounding them–every single person the movie follows during the experiment–are non-white, while almost everyone actually causing violence during the Purge is white.
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When Nya gets her foot caught in a trap and attackers burst from a grate nearby, hands scrabble furiously at her crotch. Running away, she yells behind her, P***y grabbing motherf***er! Somehow, despite being completely out of character, that line is predictable, too. Its the exact kind of low-hanging fruit this movie hungrily plucks, scene after scene.
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The Purge movies have always been about the 1% versus the 99, the privileged against the underprivileged–the rich trying to exterminate the poor by pitting them against one another while sitting safe in fortified ivory towers. In the previous three movies, that theme served as the core, beneath a veneer of fantastically stylized violence, with gangs of roving murderers draping their cars with Christmas lights and donning exaggerated masks over preppy school uniforms. InThe First Purge, that thin surface of fantasy is gone, leaving only a crude, gratuitous, vaguely exploitative movie about the government openly and mercilessly exterminating poor people.
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Early on, there are isolated scenes of NFFA officials interviewing Staten Islanders about their pent up rage, then offering them monetary compensation for remaining on the island and actively participating. The government implants them with tracking devices and issues them high tech contact lenses that will record the nights events so the results can be broadcast to the world. Glowing red, green, or blue in the darkness, these contacts are one of the movies only creative aesthetic liberties, although they often verge on looking silly.
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Racially charged violence is disturbing
Theres nothing fun or thrilling about watching white people dressed up as real world hate groups efficiently murdering innocent victims. The Purge series veneer of fantasy is gone. Its too on the nose, and it knows it. ThatThe First Purgeis a prequel means the people we see suffering in it are doomed to at least another 25 years of annual violence and oppression, a fact youll be acutely aware of as the dawn breaks on the first experiment, the few survivors limp down the street, and the tastelessly summoned Kendrick Lamar song Alright (Alls my life I had to fight) thumps into life over your theaters speakers.
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The First Purgedoesnt hesitate to mirror real world events, and never to its benefit. At one point, off screen (thankfully), a group of white mercenaries disguised as a biker gang guns down dozens of black, hispanic, and Asian people huddling for safety in a church–something that more or lesshappened in real lifejust three years ago. Later, white soldiers rampage through a towering housing project, systematically, inhumanly slaughtering the hundreds of non-white people inside, room by room and floor by floor. There were points inThe First PurgeI could have been watching last yearsDetroit, a movie about the real life terror inflicted on black people by white cops during Detroits 1967 12th Street Riot. Thats not imagery you want to evoke lightly, yetThe First Purgeuses it readily, in between scenes of cackling homeless ladies setting traps in alleyways and Dmitris gang members eagerly arming themselves to the teeth.
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Loses the fantasy veneer of previous entries
Cheesy dialogue and inconsistent writing
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LikeThe Purge: Anarchy, the second in the series,The First Purgewants to suggest that, with scattered exceptions, normal people arent inherently violent enough to Purge. They need a push, and that shove comes from the New Founding Fathers of America, the government that, in this movie, just recently emerged as the third option in Americas two party system and seized power from Republicans and Democrats alike.The First Purgeexplains how the NFFA was able to pull it off: Much like the politicians in power today, they exploited peoples fear. The movie spends an opening montage citing a grab bag of real world social unrest, from the Black Lives Matter movement to a housing crisis worse than 2008s.
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2016sThe Purge: Election Yearended on a hopeful note. That movie tried to mirror the real world too, but the real life politics it mimicked turned out much differently than the films. In 2018, we could have used a movie where, for once, the good guys won. The fact that series creator James DeMonaco, whos written all four entries and directed the three before this, chose to give us a prequel instead is empirical evidence that he may be out of good ideas.