Just in time for an ironic Independence Day release, The First Purge is another meaningless prequel that answers questions no one asked or needed answered. While it seems undeniably important that the film’s action/survival narrative revolves around an oppressed African-American population rising up against a government that is systematically and unapologetically eradicating them — and that it bothers to show how the ‘scientific’ basis of The Purge is immediately skewed by lack of a control group and confirmation bias — there are still plenty of reasons for skepticism. Which is to say, do the filmmakers have anything to say about how we got here? Or is this a cash-grab, a cynical attempt to court the black and latino demographics that make up a huge portion of horror audiences?
James DeMonaco, the writer and director of the first three Purge films, here claims only screenwriting credit, ceding the director’s chair to Gerard McMurray, who makes DeMonaco look like Michael Mann: while the other films in this series rarely seemed capable of stringing ideas together into anything approximating an exciting or suspenseful set-piece, they at least contained the occasional striking image, which McMurray can’t even manage. The First Purge‘s cinematographer, Anastas N. Michos, also eschews the dark, rich hues and neon glow typical of this franchise for a drab, blurry digital smear. And most of the action scenes in the film look shockingly disconnected, almost as if they were added late in post-production and the filmmakers only had access to smoke machines and silhouetted extras. Even some of the big-name performances this film lands are wasted, such as Marisa Tomei as the ‘architect’ of The Purge — though Y’lan Noel, as drug kingpin-turned-neighborhhod savior, and Lex Scott Davis, as his ex who’s now an anti-Purge activist, make an appealing couple.
Most of the action scenes in the film look shockingly disconnected, almost as if they were added late in post-production and the filmmakers only had access to smoke machines and silhouetted extras.
The First Purge is built to launch a million think pieces, though the fact that anyone can read pretty much whatever they want into it is really not to its credit. Compared to something like David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis — where late-capitalist ennui infected the narrative as well as the film’s aesthetic and its mise en scène — the filmmakers behind the Purge series have simply slathered a patina of current events over their cheap product. An introductory montage here compresses the last year or so of diegetic history into about a minute of screen time, and the few jokes that are scattered throughout seem designed solely to elicit a kind of ‘hey, I get that’ recognition from audiences. The only image here that is very likely to linger in anyone’s mind? A shot of a poster for the upcoming Halloween reboot (courtesy of producer Jason Blum), hanging on the wall in one of the character’s bedrooms. It’s all promotion for Blumhouse product, soak it in. Pissing off idiots in MAGA hats is noble, but we’ve got to demand more from our B-Grade entertainment.