The Last Sci-Fi Blog: How 'The Purge' Unexpectedly Became the Science Fiction Franchise We Need

The Last Sci-Fi Blog: How 'The Purge' Unexpectedly Became the Science Fiction Franchise We Need

Jul 06, 2016

Warning: The below contains some spoilers for the first three Purge movies.

 

Somehow, against all odds, The Purge and its sequels are some of the most interesting science fiction movies being made right now. Messy but bold, cynical but accessible, they represent dystopian sci-fi at its angriest, weirdest and nerviest. What looks like a high concept horror series quickly evolves into a low-budget genre franchise that tracks down every single one of America’s buttons and repeatedly pushes them, hoping to upset someone, to get some kind of reaction. Over the course of three films, The Purge has become a strong companion piece to something more mainstream and accessible like The Hunger Games. There is something sharp and dangerous under all of that slick marketing and mainstream success.

After all, the newest film in the series, The Purge: Election Year, climaxes with a team of mostly black militants preparing to shoot up a church full of wealthy white evangelical conservatives planning to murder a left-wing politician as part of a religious ritual. We can talk all day about writer/director James DeMonaco’s execution of his brilliant, high concept premise, but it’s impossible to deny the balls of steel he brings to these movies. After all, he’s making them cheap enough to get away with pretty much anything he wants.

But let’s back up for a second. The original The Purge arrived in 2013 and it was an above average home invasion thriller that just-so-happened to be set in a horrifying near-future America. The New Founding Fathers of America have created an annual holiday: the Purge, a twelve-hour period where all crimes are legalized and American citizens are free to murder their fellow man without fear of repercussion. The best moments in the original film arrive early as we see just how normalized this horrifying day has become. Families calmly lock down their houses. Fathers and sons and friends journey to the city with their arsenal and costumes to take advantage of the night and have a good time. It’s first class world-building in service of a very familiar template. Even as the film begins hitting the familiar “masked killers stalk a family through their own home” beats, DeMonaco leans on that dystopian dread. To his credit, the familiar story ends in an unfamiliar way, with the family managing to wait out their killers, who trudge home after the Purge ends and their crimes are now illegal.

However, it’s the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, where the angry sci-fi seeds planted in the first film begin to blossom. The scope widens, taking the action into the urban killing floor of Los Angeles, and DeMonaco begins to really throw ideas at the wall to see what sticks. What was suggested in the original film becomes more literal when seen from outside of an upper class suburban setting: the Purge exists as an excuse to decimate the poor and homeless population, people who can’t afford to fight back or protect themselves. Suddenly, a high concept horror series becomes less about its gnarly violence (although there is plenty of that) and more about life in an America economic hardship is the default for millions of people, the wealthy elite get bailed out, and men and women of color face institutionalized racism that often ends in violence and the perpetrators always go unpunished. The Purge is a unique Frankenstein’s monster of a film series: a blend of science fiction borrowed from George Orwell and his successors/imitators, low-budget horror, and socially conscious politics that literalize the evils of the “one percent.” As the poor and impoverished meet their end on Purge night, the suburbanites sit in the secure homes they can afford and the most powerful men and women are granted immunity from the whole affair.

These movies won’t win awards for being subtle. The Purge: Election Year features a scene where a small business owner (in a black neighborhood, of course) loses his “Purge insurance” the day before the festivities begin. The main characters, that liberal senator and her determined bodyguard, are hunted by literal neo-Nazi mercenaries who wear Confederate flags on their uniforms. And yet, DeMonaco’s sledgehammer approach works, especially when taken in the context of the genres he’s working in. It’s so rare for mainstream horror to be about anything, which instantly makes this franchise so much more interesting than its peers. The message allows the science fiction (call it alternate history or dystopian or whatever you choose) to function. The world of The Purge is unnerving and detailed and angry, a sordid backdrop that allows even the most standard story elements to feel just a bit fresher.

The Purge: Election Year concludes with social justice prevailing. There’s a new President and her first act is to end the Purge once and for all. And yet, the cut to credits is accompanied by news of protests and riots. Here is a portrait of America that, while exaggerated, can’t help but feel relatable in 2016. No matter who wins an election, no matter what law is passed, the immovable opposition won’t budge. They’ll keep on making Purge movies as long as they keep on making a lot of money at the box office and considering the current state of things, they won’t be running out of material to mine anytime soon.

Categories: Features, Sci-Fi
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