3. The Purge: Election Year (2016)
At the time of release, The Purge: Election Year seemed like a film more concerned with exploiting the existence of an election cycle for profit than actually presenting any critiques of real life politics. Neither election candidate could be said to serve as an analogue for any real life politicians, which is so striking in retrospect as this third Purge movie was released the same year as Donald Trump’s election.
On the surface, Election Year is just another Purge sequel with its own distinct plot: a woman who is against the Purge is running for President against a New Founding Fathers candidate. The New Founding Fathers want to take her out, and send assassins after her even though she’s within the protected class of politicians. What’s bizarre is that Election Year takes place in 2040, meaning that the entire resistance subplot of the last film (The Purge: Anarchy) is pointless because they affect nothing. This of course gives the filmmakers a large timespan in which they can make more Purge films, but it also means that there can’t be too many sweeping changes made because life in 2040 Purge World has already been shown to us.
There’s the introduction of Purge insurance in this film, which brings up an interesting idea about the realities of the Purge, and we follow an insurance-less store owner who gets wrapped up in the politician’s plot. Along the way, he meets a woman who was once a famous purger, which begs the question: how does one become a famous purger? Was she posting her kills on TikTok every year? Was she a full time murderer, or did she just moonlight during the Purge? Sadly these people don’t really matter beyond how they advance the politician’s aim to survive and end the Purge.
Like in the second film The Purge: Anarchy, The Purge: Election Year is an excuse to move from one action set piece to the next, but at least there is some sort of meaning to it all since the lady running for President wants to end the Purge, and the film does a better job of showing the deviance of the New Founding Fathers themselves, rather than relying on lame villains that embody the immediate problems of the Purge.
There remains, however, quite a gap between this film and the next two in this list in terms of how they address the themes and real-world issues the Purge series would like to think it’s about.
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2. The First Purge (2018)
The First Purge (which is the fourth film) is the best example of what the Purge series wants to be.
While the first few films do touch on issues of class and political grandstanding by American conservatives, The First Purge actually explores how the Purge was used to divide and destroy a black community on Staten Island. A couple of scientists and the government decide to run an experiment for the Purge, and offer citizens incentives to participate and wear contacts that record the ensuing chaos.
Creating incentive for normal citizens to participate makes a lot of sense in this film, because it seems the average middle class individual in America has more to lose by going out and potentially getting murdered, much less the average low income individual whose family would lack the social safety net to survive if a primary earner was lost (though there is a chance that the changes later made by the New Founding Fathers regarding healthcare and other equality measures may actually make it easier for people to get by in such a scenario). The contacts also assist in giving characters a creepy feel visually without them resorting to horror movie villain masks.
The bad guy in The First Purge is a serial killer with scarification named Skeletor. Skeletor is the embodiment of chaotic evil so, while he looks cool and is played well, he makes for a boring villain overall; much like every other Purge antagonist. It shows how, even in the best of the series, there’s no room for nuance in the violence, and that it always comes down to “bad guy wants to murder people, good guys try to stop them.”
This is also the first Purge film to utilize expressionist lighting over more naturalistic techniques, which both makes it more visually appealing than its predecessors and works because these aren’t gritty, realistic films. Heightened stylization tends to be a benefit to action films because there isn’t a whole lot else going on to appeal to cinephiles, or indeed anyone who considers the realism of the movie for even a second.
1. The Forever Purge (2021)
The Forever Purge is a course correction from the lack of real life commentary in Election Year, and continues The First Purge’s focus on disproportionately affected groups of people.
The Forever Purge follows a group of ranch-hands and ranch owners as they make their way to Mexico to escape a Purge that continues after Purge Night – something that seems like it should have impacted events in 2040, where there are no discernible differences from the past films aside from the occasional reference to “twenty years ago.”
The conflict between the Mexican immigrant ranch-hands and the xenophobic owner class is blunt, but a more meaningful commentary than anything seen in the first two films. White characters proudly display their ignorance, but the film doesn’t paint with a broad brush and shows that people can improve their ignorance. Class divide or not, characters are in conflict together against the totalitarian uprising and the New Founding Fathers regime, which come to represent a much more openly sinister force in 21st century American politics.
There’s some variety in action set pieces too, not least due to the wide range of landscapes the film crosses. While the previous films stayed in cities and suburbs, The Forever Purge follows characters traveling across the Texas highways, and puts characters in situations where they can make diplomatic decisions to avoid conflict. The finale even includes the use of non-traditional action movie weapons, sort of like the end of Hobbs and Shaw.
Perhaps the Trump Administration and a growing interest in political advocacy spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement was a positive for the franchise. The Purge films finally had something major to comment on, and while the general use of these themes in a film could be seen as exploitative, it still contributes to larger societal discourse in a way that takes the film beyond a dumb action movie. Additionally, the TV show added background information that expands from the loose worldbuilding of the first three films.
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What will they do now that they’ve really found their footing?
As of writing, a sixth film is in the works and, knowing Hollywood, they won’t stop coming until the films fail to hit their target numbers at the box office (assuming Universal doesn’t cave to the home media pressure and release future films as streaming content), which could reflect the complacency of Americans to actually bring about societal change, but is instead a sign of the “money over morality” ethos the films attempt to criticize. The best that can be said is that The Purge is an action franchise that does want to make positive points about the socio-economic conditions in America, but the strategy of releasing action films that glorify the violence with poorly thought-out worldbuidling (has anyone asked why a person would be incentivized to own a business when they can’t afford Purge insurance?) holds the series back from achieving its artistic potential.