Friday, June 7, 2013

Review: The Purge (2013)

The Purge (2013)

In the last few years, Jason Blum, the head of Blumhouse Productions, has quietly become one of the biggest horror producers in Hollywood. He was behind the Paranormal Activity series (which has wavered in quality, but the first one was great), Insidious (by all accounts excellent, but I still have yet to see it; I know, that makes me an awful horror fan), Sinister (really good), and Dark Skies (a dud). The secret to Blum's success is, much like Roger Corman, keeping filmmakers on a tight leash when it comes to budget but letting them run wild creatively, allowing Blumhouse to make some very creative films that have no problem making back their budget -- a formula that Hollywood, in this age of nine figures being normal for even an April release, should pay more attention to. However, the latest film from Blumhouse, The Purge, is a clear example of the limits of that approach. This film is filled with ideas that it never capitalizes on, both in terms of its setup and with regard to various plot twists, and it is almost bereft of tension and frights.

The setup is that, in the year 2022, America is ruled by a cabal known as the New Founding Fathers, and as their solution to crime and poverty, they instituted what is known as the Purge. For one night a year, all laws (with some exceptions -- no killing soldiers or government officials, for instance) are lifted, allowing people to "release the beast" and act out all of their most primal urges free from any restraint or authority. The idea is that, by concentrating all of this violence in one night, the other 364 days will be largely free of killing sprees and lawlessness, though darker motives are implied. In any event, by 2022 America is a seemingly utopian society, all because of the annual Purge.

This is a setup that is rife with potential for satire. How would normal people behave when the constraints of society are lifted? What happens to those who can't afford expensive security systems and private bodyguards? How would people who tried to kill each other during the Purge -- or, worse, succeeded in killing family members -- treat each other afterwards? How paranoid would neighbors get in the days leading up to the Purge? Is there "Purge tourism", where foreigners come to America to take part? Indeed, we get hints of this in the first act, where we hear a caller on a talk show discussing how the Purge disproportionately impacts the poor, and watch as one of the main characters' neighbors sharpens his machete while our hero father looks on. There also exists a wealth of material on the film's official site, styled as the website of the New Founding Fathers.

Alas, these ideas go largely ignored, and what we get instead for the bulk of this film's runtime is a third-rate home invasion thriller. From where I'm sitting, this film's tiny budget held it back from capitalizing on its bigger ideas. We get shots of gang wars in the opening credits, but with a bigger budget, we could've had more than just that brief montage. We could've seen daring heists performed without fear of the law, we could've seen terrorists pulling off their dream attacks... and now that I think about it, this whole premise falls apart if you put any thought into it whatsoever. Terrorists, spies, hackers, robbers, and others would have carte blanche to bring America to its knees; by the time the police are back on the streets they're already staring at ruins. None of this is ever brought up. Even petty crimes like theft don't seem to exist during the Purge; it seems to be just murder that everybody engages in. Some modifications to the premise could've made it work better; for example, specifying that it's just murder that's legal, or putting public property, important infrastructure, and banks off-limits. The way it is, though, the setup behind The Purge has a lot of major holes in it.

Okay, so the premise is silly. But still, I could've forgiven The Purge had it been actually scary. Unfortunately, it isn't, with more scenes provoking unintentional laughter than frights. All of the characters are one-dimensional, given only the most paper-thin development, and I found it very difficult to care about any of them. The teenage daughter's boyfriend could've been removed from the film entirely without it suffering in the least, and the only point of the homeless veteran is to give the bad guys (a group of preppy kids with masks and guns) an excuse to attack our family. Even when it takes a major twist in the third act, it ignores (spoiler warning, for those who care) one of the most obvious reasons why the neighbors would've turned on the family -- them seeing the family's house getting ripped apart, remembering that the owner of that house had sold them their security systems (identical to his own), and realizing that he ripped them off. Plus, for a horror film marketed on the premise of "murder is legal!", the deaths here, while plentiful, are lacking in brutality, consisting mainly of people getting shot. The one good thing I can say is that this film looks good, with a number of well-done shots and its two leads, Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey, doing what they can to try and salvage the material.

Score: 1 out of 5

The fact that this premise could've been used to make such a twisted satire only makes it more depressing how this film squandered it. Worse, it's also a pretty subpar entry in its intended genre, paling in comparison to similar films like The Strangers. This was a colossal disappointment. Stay away.

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