*. Has there ever been a really good prequel? I don’t think there can have been many. It’s a point that aroused my curiosity, and in order to answer my own question I went looking for lists of prequels and was surprised at what fits the definition. Did you know that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is considered, at least in some circles, to be a prequel? Or The Godfather Part II?
*. That’s by the way. The First Purge is a prequel to the Purge franchise. I didn’t think that highly of any of the earlier Purge movies (The Purge, The Purge: Anarchy, The Purge: Election Year), though the first two had at least something to recommend them. So there was certainly a window open to test my thesis, or general rule, that prequels rarely work out.
*. In my notes on Election Year I mentioned how, where the first two Purge films were dystopic action films with heavy political subtexts, Election Year flipped this around, being a political film with perfunctory action sequences. That’s a direction that is continued here, as The First Purge is pretty much straight politics.
*. I also said in my Election Year notes how the theme of class war could easily be mistaken for race war. They’re still trying to suggest class war in this movie (the Purge is described as a political plot to “depopulate the lower classes just so the NFFA doesn’t have to support them”), but the racial angle is played up even more.
*. That racial message is, in turn, rather heavy-handed. The end of The Birth of a Nation is even reversed, with a black gang riding to the rescue of a building full of black people being attacked by Klansmen. Throughout the film white people are government bureaucrats, KKK members, or jackbooted neo-Nazi stormtroopers (nerds, rednecks, and Aryans respectively). Black people are associated with family and community. There is one black villain, but he’s such a cartoonish psychopath (his name is Skeletor) that the movie literally doesn’t know what to do with him and he disappears shortly after the Purge gets going. A neighbourhood crime boss/drug dealer, on the other hand, is one of our heroes.
*. This is, as I say, heavy-handed. But it’s no more clear for being so. The gang leader (Y’lan Noel) is just one such troubling point. Another is the social psychology professor (Marisa Tomei, who I didn’t recognize). Her plan for “societal catharsis” is data driven, so she gets upset when she finds out that the government (the NFFA or New Founding Fathers of America) is rigging the game and messing with her metrics by injecting teams of mercenaries into the Purge location (Staten Island) in order to up the body count. She feels betrayed by this and even has a “What have I done?” moment where she asks “What have I done?” A government goon squad then executes her.
*. The problem with this is that it seems to suggest that the basic thinking behind the Purge experiment was solid. It was a good idea that was undone for political reasons. Can that be what we’re supposed to think?
*. I suppose I liked this one a bit better than Election Year, but in the end I found it to be simplistic, preachy, and slightly confused. That it manages to be confused despite its obvious political messaging is, when you think about it, remarkable. Still, there you have it.
*. Finally, I would add another contradiction. For all its political posturing, The First Purge doesn’t feel like an angry movie. I think perhaps the dystopian setting is responsible for that. Are the filmmakers saying that this is the real America, or what America might turn into?
*. But what deflects the anger even more is the fact that the Purge is live streamed as mass entertainment and that many of the Purgers are paid participants. We are all complicit in the Purge then — as an experiment, and as a movie. The racism is regrettable, but it shouldn’t get in the way of our enjoying the show. And, for the most part, I don’t think it does.