‘The First Purge’ proves first is the worst

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Universal Pictures /Courtesy

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Grade: 2.0/5.0

Every prequel starts with the cards stacked against it because the audience already knows the outcome. “The First Purge” is no exception —  the fourth installment’s attempts to introduce new iconography or delve into politics ultimately fall flat.

“The Purge” franchise has not been able to escape parody, with television shows such as “Rick and Morty” and films such as “Meet the Blacks” taking cracks at the film’s simple premise of a time period in which all crime is legal. Despite this level of franchise awareness, “The First Purge” still spends an absurdly long time describing the all-too-familiar concept. Heavy exposition plagues the film’s opening, with newscasters spoon-feeding the concept of “the experiment” to the yet-unintroduced main characters.

What “The First Purge” and most of the other films in the series chiefly want to examine is the dark side of mankind. The series seeks to expose the brutality and menace that supposedly lurks just beneath the surface of civilized society. However, “The First Purge” is so obsessed with tying itself to current political events that it doesn’t achieve this original goal.

This latest installment is filled with references to the recent political climate, but in bizarrely contradictory ways. The villains in this movie are easy to identify: It’s the Klu Klux Klan, in full regalia riding motorcycles by the light of tiki torches. Or it’s the masked policemen, sporting grisly battle armor, who beat a Black man on a baseball diamond. Or it’s the shady government agency with ties to Russia.

The film uses a big cast to tell these varying narratives, disavowing the tight, family-centric story of 2013’s “The Purge.” “The First Purge” splits screen time among Isaiah (Joivan Wade), Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) and Nya (Lex Scott Davis). Yet these characters are never fleshed out or made interesting — they’re constantly replaced by even more new characters, each of whom is carelessly tossed aside.

Three old men are introduced in the film’s beginning, before the bloodbath begins. Reclining in lawn chairs with beers and jovial self-references to themselves as “the three kings,” they appear important. Yet if any member of the audience thought that these characters would matter, they were sadly mistaken.

After this one scene, the men disappear, reemerging only toward the film’s climax. Once they’re rescued by Dmitri, one of the men says, “speak of the devil” — a line that makes little sense, considering that none of the three were talking about him before. Blaise (Siya) gets a similar treatment, receiving a bold introduction to her character that later seems wasted, given her little screen time. This jumbled script and botched editing result in a lack of cohesion being the film’s defining characteristic.

Characters aren’t the only part of “The First Purge” that are introduced and then promptly forgotten — the film brings in contact lenses that record the actions taken by participants in the experiment. Soon, the screen becomes filled with individuals donning lenses. Yet somehow, the film barely thinks to include a POV shot. The contact lenses seem to exist, like most of the costuming and set design choices, as an excuse to show iconography that exists solely to frighten, never to progress the plot.

This same principle is echoed in the creepy, dark-eyed masks that have become a staple of the film series. A breathy newscaster mentions this phenomenon in passing, providing a chance to finally explain the mystery. However, after throwing out a few attempts at explanation, the newcaster seemingly shrugs it off.

In its attempts to offer political commentary, “The First Purge” vastly overreaches. Its sloppy references just feel careless. The film can’t even keep a straight ideology going through the course of the narrative. The decision to include KKK imagery reads like an attempt to be provocative rather than provide concrete political commentary. And the film’s perplexing solution to the KKK is to kill them all with illegal guns, providing a wholly confusing mixed bag of ideology.

“The First Purge” is messy, with too many loose threads crippling any possibility for a successful ending. Future films should purge ostensibly shallow political commentary from their narratives — maybe that’s the real ongoing crime.

Sarah Alford covers film. Contact her at [email protected].