The brilliant and big budget "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and last year’s disconcertingly clever and low budget "The Purge" both take place in the not-so-distant 2020s, offering visions of the future alike only in their human-created bleakness.
In “Dawn,” supposed beasts rise amid the self-inflicted decline of people. In “The Purge,” the government sets a 12-hour period once a year in which citizens can “release the beast” – killing and otherwise wreaking havoc without fear of punishment.
Now, a sequel to “The Purge,” a sleeper hit, reaches theaters Friday as "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” stands atop the box office – potentially combining to define 2014 as a summer of dystopia, at least at the movies.
Not that we’re complaining. The first “Purge” film, both fascinating and flawed, proved among the sparsest and perhaps most disturbing movies of recent years – including, “District 9,” the “Hunger Games” series and “Divergent” – that craftily tap into our fears about the future.
At the time-stamp of “The Purge” franchise, America thrives economically, seemingly thanks to the annual ritual bloodletting that allows people to unleash their aggression in one, contained burst. But in reality, the well off can afford to protect themselves while the poor become the most dangerous game, their ranks pruned every March 22nd.
The undeniably gripping and unrelentingly violent film’s commentary on class, the value of life and the ugly underbelly of human nature, though, threatens to be buried under the massive body count.
While some have dismissed “The Purge” as a gimmicky, high-concept home-invasion film, the relatively small stage represents a strength. The action largely is limited to the home of a man who made a bundle by selling security systems to his jealous neighbors, and winds up, thanks to his son’s decency, in the least safe dwelling on the block. For all the gore, the director James DeMonaco created a palpable atmosphere of constant fear, tension and claustrophobia.
In some ways, “The Purge” echoes the original 1968 “Night of the Living Dead,” the granddaddy of the current zombie movement, with its confined spaces, suspense and stab at allegory. George Romero’s zombie classic arrived the same year as “The Planet of the Apes,” which was among the first of the blockbuster, smart dystopian flicks – a legacy that extends from “A Clockwork Orange” to “Blade Runner” to the current reimagining of the “Apes” series.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” may be the best movie in the genre since the original 1968 film. The $170 million reboot comes across as unceasingly intelligent and chilling, with motion-capture effects blending seamlessly with the narrative.
“The Purge,” which was made for $3 million and took in more than 20 times that in the U.S., is far less subtle and far more manipulative – but in some respects, it's more frightening. The setting, less than a decade away, is relatable. So, sadly, is the impulse to murder lurking in too many ordinary people.
“The Purge: Anarchy,” which takes the action from the home to the streets, offers an opportunity to re-release the beast – and, hopefully, improve on the series’ first outing. Check out a clip depicting life in an America where it’s all but guaranteed that no one is safe, at least for one night a year:
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.