Last year, we got The Purge. The movie didn’t get too many good reviews. But 40 years ago, this movie would have been a cult classic. Let’s take a trip down memory lane, all the way back to the 1970s and its movies.
There’s very little that doesn’t sound awesome when describing The Purge. The premise is this. In the very near future, America has solved the problem of unemployment and crime after some sort of drastic change of the regime happened. Everywhere, there are mentions of The New Founding Fathers implying that this is not the United States we know. Most of the crimelessness of the new United States is due to there being the night of The Purge. During that one night a year, all crime is legal and Americans are free to shoot the neighbor they hate so much in the head and get away scot free.
This annual night is made to be some sort of glorified people’s festival, with live coverage from multiple cities and anchors on TV tallying up the numbers of people participating in it. There are even chants resembling prayer that can be said after murdering or raping someone.
The Throwback to the 1970s
In its premise, The Purge is reminiscent of the science fiction movies of the 1970s. Movies that showed some utopian society that had one flaw. This was a really weird sort of movement in films at around a time when people lost their belief in the larger concept of Progress. Up until then, there was the space race, there was the development of bigger, better cars, and so on.
But the 1970s weren’t a nice time. You had the constant threat of nuclear war, the Arab Oil Embargo, pollution was very, very high and so was crime. There was smog, a lot of it. The economy wasn’t doing all that well and even culture was in a bit of a pickle. The hippie movement went down rather unceremoniously, there’s nothing to replace it.
In the eyes of many, this led to them flat-out rejecting modernity. The few remaining hippies started to dislike mainstream culture – whatever that had become – even more and leaned towards new age and esoteric spiritualism. Their counterparts, the right, became more and more religious, preaching that we as a humanity should go back to simpler times.
To this day, this persists.
The Movies that Matched the Times
Enough history. On with the movies. Because movies are always a reflection of the zeitgeist, the directors, writers and directors were intent of holding a mirror in front of the people. So movies like came around that showed horrible futures that seemed pretty okay at first glance.
In Death Race 2000, an overpopulated America saw the rise of the most deadly sport ever. It’s a car race where colourful teams raced across the United States, killing people in as spectacular ways as possible. Vehicular manslaughter was to solve the nations’ problems of overcrowding. Senior citizen’s homes put the old outside so that they can get run over for points. The media dubbed this an honour.
Logan’s Run showed a glimpse into a crime-free, hedonistic future where everyone got along well and sex had been completely separated from love. At a certain age, people go to the Carrousel where they fight to the death in order to be reborn. Logan 5 is a sandman and he goes to hunt those who want to escape the Carrousel. He’s good at this. Then, everything goes wrong as he’s sent outside the domed safe city.
Charlton Heston gave a very good performance in The Omega Man in which biological warfare between the Chinese and the Soviets made all of humanity sick. Somehow, Heston’s character survived and is apparently the only healthy man left. He has fortified himself in an old movie theatre and fends off the rest of humanity who has become some sort of zombies. They’re nocturnal and shy away from the light.
There were many other movies. The Planet of the Apes began in the 1970s, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange was made into a film in that decade. There were Westworld, Zardoz and Dawn of the Dead and oh-so-many others.
That train of thought persists to this day, even though the idea has evolved, steadily reflecting the zeitgeist of the 1980s where governments were kind of frowned upon, the 90s where everything was cyberspace and the 2000s where the media got to be the target of satire and SciFi.
However, the sort of dystopia seen in Logan’s Run and its siblings, that died in the 1970s. And if The Purge had been made then, it would have become a cult classic. Today, though, it’s just a bad movie with an awesome premise.
The Plot of The Purge
The basic premise is still simple. Humans are killing each other off once a year for a night and that’s legal. In an upscale suburban neighbourhood, James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) sells security system and fortifying elements for houses. This is necessary because of The Purge and it has made him and his family rich. They live in a huge house and they seem well-liked by their neighbours.
When the night of The Purge rolls around, the Sandins and their neighbours are ready to hole up in their houses, but the Sandin son Charlie lets in a homeless man who is pursued by a group of people who have decided that the homeless man’s time is up. However, with a man in the house whom nobody knows and who might be a murderer himself, the Sandin household is in trouble. Especially since the people outside, for some reason have decided that the homeless man must die and because all crime is legal anyways, they might as well break into a house.
During the movie, people criticize The Purge here and there, referring to it as inhuman and cruel, but they reason that it’s necessary due to the humans’ natural tendency for violence. All this while they’re waiting for the siren that ends The Purge.
Why it Fails
There are many things The Purge has got going for it. It’s refreshingly short, clocking in at 85 minutes and is thus a refreshing change to the 160 minute epics that seem to be the norm these days. So the story is rather densely packed into the film, allowing for very little characterization of the actors. This can be seen as a strength, because the film tries to go the 1970s-route where viewers were more invested in the concept of the world rather than the people in it.
That’s where it all falls apart. Viewers don’t get to see the world because everything is set in one house. There is no character development because that’s not the kind of movie where it’s needed or wanted. There’s also no time.
To add to that, audiences today, be they science fiction fans or not, they expect more than that. Some sort of plot twist, at least. Sure, there is a twist at the end, but it’s inconsequential and can be seen coming from a mile away.
The Necessary Sequel
Despite the failure of the first movie, this concept is not a lost cause. There is a good story in there somewhere. Less character moments, more world is what this potential franchise needs. Thus, there is going to be a sequel, titled The Purge: Anarchy. It has a completely new cast, a new setting of being out in the open inside a city and the trailer looks interesting.
The thing is, the concept of The Purge does have potential, but it needs more substance. The way the first movie is set up, it attempts to show us a 1970s dystopia by not showing us that while focusing on the human horror of mistrust and skepticism towards one another that we seem to be so fond of today. The problem is, that won’t work because the world of The Purge is just too outlandishly different to the world we’re used to. And too close to today.
The Purge: Anarchy opens in Swiss cinemas on Thursday, July 31st. Here’s a trailer: