We’re watching James DeMonaco’s THE PURGE

21 Oct

Jeff Campagna wonders why a good science-fiction idea was sent naked in front of the camera.

Region 2 DVD released 21 October 2013

James DeMonaco’s concept of an America reborn in The Purge is an interesting one. So I don’t intend to mention how the film’s fleeting 85-minute runtime left me feeling royally fleeced, even though a part of me was grateful when the end credits finally rolled. I do not plan on mentioning the complete lack of anything resembling back-story, character motive, character origins or subtext.

Nor do I intend to mention the intemperate overuse of rotting old thriller tactics such as mysterious bullets from unseen shooters ripping through the backs of smug-faced villains just as they are about to butcher the helpless protagonist. (And as the smug-faced villain sags to the floor, a long-assumed-dead character is revealed, standing heroically, pistol in shaky hand. I think this device is employed on six separate occasions in the film.)

The concept of itself is a captivating one: a twelve-hour period every year when all crime, including murder, is legal—thus alleviating (or ‘purging’ if you will) all the societal tension, interpersonal resentment and bloodlust that mounts during the other 8,753 hours of the year. The concept of having to smash a few eggs in order to make an omelette is not unprecedented (parents having the choice to abort their teenage children in Neal Shusterman’s Unwind; children battle each other to death for public entertainment in Koushun Takami’s Battle Royal, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and even, to a certain degree, Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery”). Still, it is interesting to see how DeMonaco has “patriotised” the anarchy.

A family gathers round to watch the clock tick down: the importance of The Purge is discussed as if it were Jesus Christ. Watching the up-to-the-minute Purge newscast (like watching prime-time news anchors chart the course of Santa and his reindeer), the full saturation of the pseudo-religious, government-operated holiday becomes clear. Plus the New Founding Fathers of America (the political entity responsible for resuscitating the ebbing nation) have some first-rate propaganda slogans like “One night to save America”, “Violence is human, purging is patriotic” and “Cleanse your soul, cleanse America”.

What I do plan on mentioning, however, is DeMonaco’s handling of a so-called near-future. The film is set in the year 2022 – nine years from now. Miss the very brief and ambiguous title-card, however, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a film set in present day. The film offers no further evidence that it’s actually set in the future.

This non-future first becomes apparent upon the introduction of the principal family’s youngest child, Max (the overly-intellectual, creepy-for-no-reason pre-teen with counterfeit altruism) and his toy robot: an amalgamation of a torn-apart plastic doll and a vintage toy tank with clunky caterpillar treads. Of course, this monstrosity saves the day more than once throughout the 85 minutes. Is this mutant of nostalgia what we are to expect from the future of personal home robotics? A technological about-face? Obviously DeMonaco hasn’t seen Rapiro (the little Raspberry Pi-powered humanoid that can make your coffee) or Romo (a mini-robot powered by a smartphone) or even PePeRo (a cute little robot who seeks out his docking station on his own when his power runs low).

Suddenly, as if upon introduction of the tank-doll robot, various other cracks begin to show in the surface of DeMonaco’s non-future: Stepford wives run on clunky black treadmills from the late Nineties. Cheap hotel art adorns the walls of an affluent suburban home. Pictures of loved-ones lean backwards inside old frames atop cumbersome side tables. Chunky black laptops. Top-of-the-line home security systems with absolutely no remote smartphone control capabilities. Cars and trucks that look to be from the pages of a 2010 used car flyer. Eighteen year-olds with wired earbuds connected to iPods. A nuclear family sitting together around a dining-room table eating dinner (which was faithfully prepared by mom) while discussing the events of their non-future days. Did I mention the tank-doll robot?

Perhaps somewhere in the missing backstory is the fact that between the years of 2013 and 2022, all of America’s great thinkers and tinkerers, artists and philosophers, programmers and roboticists, chemists and botanists, engineers of all specialities and inventors of varying levels of expertise have all gone on strike indefinitely or fell into deep sinkholes and perished, or have entered cryostasis or just stopped thinking altogether. I can think of no other reason for technological progress to have come to a screeching halt in DeMonaco’s failed portrayal.

The problem with The Purge is that no future is evident. In fact, it’s a digression. It feels like watching an early 2000’s family sitcom, except the family has a 2010 security system. C’mon. Things have to change. Nothing ever stays the same. Maybe DeMonaco’s idea was that the big city was a chromed metropolis and the slums were grungy and the suburbs were left in the middle, like a purgatory. I would have gone in for this had he made mention of it, or better yet, showed me.

The Purge is a cool concept, and in a film drawing on the acting talent of Ethan Hawke and Lena Headley, it should have made a great character piece. Instead it labours under a truly leaden idea of what sci-fi ought to look like. This matters. Whether it’s rendered in high-gloss chrome or clad in tattered rags, the future must look and feel different from today. No?


Also on the blog:

Sumit Paul-Choudhury looks down from Elysium.

Jeff Campagna talks to Alastair Parvin, founder of Wikihouse.

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