Rod Serling would’ve been disappointed, I think.
While trailers for The Purge make it look like a depressing splatterfest, the sci-fi/horror flick is, in some ways, more like a frenetically violent, 85-minute episode of The Twilight Zone. Its central premise is something straight out of Serling’s imagination: What if society decided to make crime—assault, murder, the whole works—legal for a night?
It’s a great idea (the story concept, not actually legalizing crime), but one (as I said in my Plugged In review) that probably would’ve worked better on the old 1960s show. While the flick generously ladles out violence, it was pretty stingy on any actual suspense or scares. Your heroes can be improbably saved from imminent death so many times before you, as a viewer, start looking at your watch.
But while The Purge as a movie wasn’t that great, its central question sparked another, even more interesting question for me: What makes something right?
The whole friction between what’s legal and what’s right is really compelling to me, maybe because I had to wrestle with the concept so mightily while writing my Batman-focused book, God on the Streets of Gotham. On one hand, Batman’s a vigilante, breaking the law almost every night. On the other, he’s a stickler for rules: He never kills and often drops criminals off right on the police’s front doorstep. That weird dichotomy helps make Batman the compelling basketcase that he is, I think. And maybe we struggle with that own dichotomy in ourselves. Most of us really respect the law—unless, of course, 65 mph feels a little slow for a stretch of open road in the middle of Kansas.
Laws are supposed to reflect what a society says is “right.” And I think in a just society, they largely do. Remember the old adage, “You can’t legislate morality”? Legislation, I think, is an explicit reflection of morality. Everything, from traffic statutes to the tax code, represents (often imperfectly) our cultural moral priorities. And when we push to change a law or pass a new one, we always trot out oodles of ethical rationales for doing so.
But whenever we support or oppose a law, we make a very important assumption: Right and wrong transcend whatever’s on the books. There’s a higher morality at stake. And we want our human-authored bills and rules and laws to better reflect that higher sense of morality. So in another way, the idea we “can’t legislate morality” is right on. Morality’s already there, somewhere. We’re just trying to codify it.
Somewhere along the line in the world of The Purge, America’s “new founding fathers” had a whale of a discussion of morality. And for them, it all came down to what would make the country run better.
How they came to the Purge as a solution, I have no idea. But I’d like to imagine that, after hours and hours of discussion, they all decided to watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And when they heard Spock talk about how “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (all sugared up from way too many donuts) they made a fairly horrific ethical leap.
“Hey!” one of them might’ve said. “Why not allow society’s many to kill off a few folks? It’ll really solve a lot of problems!”
And, oddly, the movie tells us, it does. We’re told that unemployment is rock-bottom and productivity is sky-high. Why? It’s all due to the Purge, and the flick suggests it could be one of two reasons: Either the Purge A) allows folks to blow off a little evolutionary steam, or B) culls society’s weaker, less productive members.
The movie’s new founding fathers made what is, essentially, a moral argument—but one that assumes that society itself is the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, the higher authority. If society works better because of a given law, that given law must be, by definition, “right.”
Except it’s not. We get this. The movie gets this. And the main characters in the film grow to understand just how wrong the Purge is after its uncomfortable realities come literally barging through the door.
The movie suggests that right and wrong is bigger than us. We don’t make it up as we go.
I think most of us understand this deep in our hearts. But we don’t necessarily realize where that understanding inexorably leads us. That sense of overarching right and wrong has to come from somewhere—God, a divine intelligence, a strange, moral compunction in the universe. We can’t be merely chance products of an unfeeling universe and have a sense of universal morality.
The morality of the Purge—that is, the fictional law—predicates there is no such overarching morality. The universe doesn’t care what we do, so right and wrong is really a matter of practicality.
The morality of The Purge—that is, the movie—tells us that’s a fallacy. Something out there does care. And deep down inside, we all know it.