Franchise creator James DeMonaco hands over directing duties to Gerard McMurray in The First Purge and gives fans arguably the best installment in the series, injecting a genuinely creepy vibe and a spooky atmosphere to an otherwise bland and familiar plot. The prequel lets loose its darkest inhibitions on Blu-ray with a marvelous, near-reference 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode and an outstanding DTS:X soundtrack, but a somewhat disappointing set of supplements. Overall, the package is only Worth a Look for the curious but tempting for franchise fans.
We've also reviewed the movie on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.
My biggest complaint about the Purge franchise is the lack of subtlety, as each film plainly — and also rather painfully — makes its anti-conservative bias blatantly clear, practically announcing each entry's central theme through a megaphone. In The First Purge, the fourth installment to the series, the movie not only wears its political opposition as a badge of honor, but it essentially celebrates it, fully embracing its message about lower-class minorities being the victims of a social experiment created by Dr. May "The Architect" Updale (Marisa Tomei). Basically, if the first three movies fail at being more artful and creative, this feature pretty much all but gives up even trying to show and just tells moviegoers what the plot is about. Unlike its predecessors, however, this third sequel surprises by also being the most entertaining of the bunch, going full-tilt bonkers with a series of wildly evocative imagery inspired by the current sociopolitical climate.
From a script by franchise-creator James DeMonaco, the plot takes fans back to 2014 when a new extreme right-wing party, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), have taken control of the U.S. government. Due to a failing economy and political turmoil, the NFFA decides to implement Dr. Updale's experiment in Staten Island with a specific, violent-ridden apartment complex as its main focal point. Led by one of our main protagonists Nya (Lex Scott Davis), protestors loudly broadcast the experiment's darker implications while repeatedly telling audiences about the poor living conditions of this urban neighborhood, mostly told through the eyes of Nya's at-risk younger brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade). Meanwhile, to demonstrate the area is not all that bad — as well as a weak attempt to inject some deeper, philosophical bombast — we're also introduced to Dmitri (Y'lan Noel), the local drug lord with a heart of gold who will predictably rise as a champion of the 'hood.
The story's predictability is another of the production's various problems. Maybe because the first three movies already made the nefarious intentions of this experiment blatantly obvious, this prequel can't seem to offer any surprises or come up with anything new altogether. It's pretty much the same we've seen where a small group of neighbors — strangers in the previous two — band together in order to fight and survive the twelve-hour window of legalized crime. The only difference placing this movie slightly above the rest is director Gerard McMurray, in his second full-length feature, breathing some visually inventive and hauntingly creepy life to an otherwise generic and familiar plot. Opening with interviews of residents expressing a desire to release their inhibitions without consequence and being incentivized to participate in the violence sets a disturbing tone. Not only are these people motivated by feelings of retribution for perceived injustices, but money becomes justification.
Setting The First Purge apart from the rest is this genuinely eerie atmosphere, a horror element the other three films I felt were sorely lacking. Of course, a pair of grandmothers strolling down the street with shopping carts full of dolls and listening Dazz Band's "Let It Whip" is a terrifying sight on its own. And the mentally disturbed drug addict Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) with syringes taped to his knuckles and treating this night as his own private playground is unnerving. But it's McMurray creative eye who proves to be the production's greatest asset. Working with cinematographer Anastas Michos (Death to Smoochy, Man on the Moon), McMurray bathes the image in vividly electrifying blues, flamboyant candy rose reds and animated emerald and lime greens. The ironically colorful presentation not only complements the story with a spookily macabre ambiance, but it also gives the film a classic horror vibe, feeling like a throwback to the Italian Giallo. It may be far from a memorable genre entry, but McMurray's The First Purge is the best of the franchise.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings The First Purge to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with a flyer for a Digital Copy. A Region Free, BD50 disc sits comfortably opposite a DVD-9 copy, and both are housed inside a black, eco-elite case with a glossy, lightly-embossed slipcover. At startup, the disc commences with a series of skippable previews before jumping to the familiar menu screen with options along the left side, full-motion clips, and music playing in the background.
The New Founding Fathers grace citizens with a marvelous, near-reference 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Coming directly from a digital HD source, the video is marvelously razor-sharp from beginning to end. The fine stitching of clothing and the fabric of furniture is detailed, the lettering on posters, advertisements and on windows is legible from a distance, and the individual bricks of buildings and cracks on walls can practically be counted. The faces of the cast are highly revealing and lifelike, divulging every wrinkle, pore, and negligible blemish, especially during close-ups. Anastas Michos's stylized photography displays a deliberately toned-down contrast, but the video nonetheless remains vivid and dynamic in daylight exteriors while the streets at night are showered in lots of crisp, sparkling whites. Thankfully, primaries are sumptuous with several scenes bathed in energetic blues, vivid reds and lively greens — something reminiscent of an Italian Giallo. Meanwhile, secondary hues are richly-saturated with lots of warm yellow and amber oranges, and facial complexions appear healthy with accurate, lifelike flesh tones.
The only issue of concern with an otherwise spectacular presentation is the brightness levels, which from the looks of it are affected by the movie's intended look and feel. Don't get me wrong, blacks are, for the most part, clean and consistent, but they could also be a tad stronger. On the whole, shadows are rather lackluster and on the murky side of things, making much of the 2.40:1 image feel flat and fairly dull. Thankfully, visibility in the darkest corners are excellent and background information remains distinct. (Video Rating: 92/100)
Violence erupts on the streets of Blu-ray thanks to an outstanding DTS:X soundtrack that generates a more nuanced and subtle presentation rather than an aggressive, overwhelming soundscape. Although it may not seem like it while watching the movie, the ceiling channels are continuously employed with various understated atmospherics and the echoing sounds of the urban neighborhood. The commotion of the city, the occasional chirping of birds, the rustling of leaves in the distance or the ringing of gunshots effortlessly pan across the overheads to shrewdly generate an involving but unpretentious hemispheric aural experience. The surrounds are equally active with outstanding directionality and flawless movement from the fronts to the sides and rears, maintaining an immersive soundfield.
Not too surprising, much of the action is spread across the three front channels, displaying excellent separation and balance into the off-screen space, providing an engagingly broad and spacious soundstage. Along with Kevin Lax's score, some of the background activity lightly bleeds into the top heights to create a surprisingly captivating half-dome effect, especially during the action-packed second half. A sharply-extensive mid-range exhibits superb clarity and detail in the loudest segments, allowing the pop of every gunshot, debris from explosions and clang of metal being struck to reverberate throughout the room and be perfectly heard. Amid the chaos, vocals remain distinct and well-prioritized, and a hearty, pleasingly responsive low-end packs a welcomed oomph and weight to each punch, crash, gunshot, and explosion. (Audio Rating: 88/100)
Bonus material can be enjoyed on both the Ultra HD disc and the Blu-ray.
Franchise creator James DeMonaco steps down from directing duties but pens the script for The First Purge, the fourth installment in the series, following a very familiar plot about a small group of people surviving a twelve-hour window of legalized crime. However, stepping into the director's chair is Gerard McMurray, who injects an otherwise bland and predictable plot with a genuinely creepy vibe and a spooky atmosphere that feels like a throwback to classic horror and the Italian Giallo. The prequel lets loose its darkest inhibitions on Blu-ray with an exceptional, near-reference HD video presentation and an outstanding, subtle DTS:X soundtrack that splendidly adds to the atmosphere. Sadly, with a puny selection of supplements, the overall package is only worth a look for franchise fans.