In Praise of the R-Rating

April 18, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Note: For those who don't live in the United States, here's a quick recap of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rating system:

G: General Audiences. Suitable for all ages.
PG: Parental Guidance Suggested. May not be suitable for young children.
PG-13: Parents Strongly Cautioned. May not be suitable for children under age 13.
R: Restricted. No one under 17 admitted without parent or guardian.
NC-17: No one admitted under age 18.
X: (Defunct) Adults only. Now associated with pornography (as in "XXX").

When the PG-13 rating was introduced in the early 1980s (following an uproar over a particularly heartless scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), it was a welcome addition. Too many movies fell into the murky area between the juvenile-friendly PG and the adult R. Teenagers were stuck seeing movies that had been made for their younger siblings or sneaking into films they technically weren't allowed to see. (This wasn't as easy back then when a multiplex often meant two or three screens to a theater, all watched by the eagle-eyed ticket-taker.)

For a while, the PG-13 rating did its job. Then an unwelcome thing started to happen. Movie-makers, recognizing the box-office potential of appealing to teenage boys, began skewing their films towards that audience. Many movies that might have started life with R-rated content were toned down so that the MPAA would give them a PG-13. Gradually, the PG-13 expanded at the expense of the R category.

Each year, the situation worsens. In 2004, the admittedly awful King Arthur was wrenched from its director's control and re-edited from a bloody R spectacle to a tame PG-13. The final cut was so disjointed it was impossible to tell what the director was striving for, and the battle scenes were incoherent (blame Jerry Bruckheimer, not Antoine Fuqua). It's one thing for a movie to start out its life as a PG-13, but entirely another for the director to think he was making an R movie only to have it radically re-shaped in the editing room without his permission.

Then there's the sad case of horror movies. Once, it was unthinkable that a horror movie could be anything but an R. Solid, visceral scares are not the stuff of a PG-13 story. But that hasn't stopped Hollywood. So we get luke-warm ghost stories that offer little more than a weak "boo!" moment or two. The '80s slasher craze had a formula: breasts, blood, and brutality. The most recent crop of horror films have none of three ingredients. (It would be different if they had worthwhile stories, but that element is missing as well.)

As a rule, I don't dislike PG-13 movies - as long as they are legitimate PG-13 movies, not R movies that have been emasculated in order to reach a wider audience. Adult content should not be removed from a film just so a theater showing it can fill up with teenagers on opening night. Let the film dictate the rating, not the other way around.

It has gotten to the point where I almost feel like applauding a movie just because it has an R-rating, irrespective of its quality. The Amityville Horror is a perfect example. It's a throwback - an R-rated horror film with plenty of gore and scares. In the end, it's not a good movie, but at least the producers had the sense to release it with the proper rating, rather than trimming it down to a PG-13. Sin City is another example. Rumors were rampant that a PG-13 cut was in the works. Thank god we were never forced to see it.

And for those that want to argue that R-rated movies aren't profitable enough because they exlclude teenagers, take a look at last weekend's box-office totals. So kudos to any studio that releases a movie with R rated content as an R-rated movie, even if it turns out that the content is crap.

Next time, I want to discuss why the PG-rating is worthless and why the MPAA will never institute Roger Ebert's pet project, the A-rating.