Before I start, I urge readers to watch the following video before reading any further. This analysis breaks down the modern phenomenon of Hollywood movies made “for all ages” and the incredible harm that studio self-censorship of language, sexuality, and yes, violence, can inflict on the artistic properties that those studios are trying to produce:
A common misconception I encounter in today’s movie-going populace is that modern day (circa 2000-present) films are quite explicit, and that films are becoming increasingly violent and sexually charged compared to mainstream films from previous decades. This mindset is, as the above video describes it, complete bullshit. Here are a list of films that received PG ratings prior to the invention of the PG-13 rating with Red Dawn (1984) after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) was released as a PG film to parental uproar earlier that year:
- Gremlins (1984)
- Poltergeist (1982)
- Jaws (1975)
- Dragonslayer (1981)
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
- Sheena (1984)
- Ghostbusters (1984)
None of these films would be given a PG (Parental Guidance suggested) rating with today’s puritanical standards. All these listed, and many others like them with similar content released during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, had numerous scenes of violence, blood and gore, frequent foul language, and sexual content including full nudity. For a modern comparison, the standard for today’s PG-rated films is something akin to Madagascar (2005) or Big Hero 6 (2014). There is no way a movie like Jaws would be given anything less than an R-rating (ages 17+) today, and films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (a movie where characters’ bodies are melted and explode on-screen, people are frequently shot with numerous blood squibs, alcohol and drugs are used freely, and there’s plenty of profanity) and Ghostbusters (a film with pervasive and obvious sexual innuendo, casual smoking, and foul language) would both manage at least a PG-13 rating.
For those of you outside the United States, here is a breakdown of the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) modern ratings system and its guideline for “age-appropriate” content for films released in the US:
This system has been around in its current form since at least the early 1990s, although the PG-13 rating first suggested by Steven Spielberg has been around since 1984. It was implemented as a midpoint between PG and R, or put another way as a rating aimed specifically at the teenage demographic. While studios began to look at R-rated films less favorably with the rapid success of PG-13-rated films during the 1980s and 1990s, that was largely OK given how many films that would’ve been slapped with an age 17+ rating under the previous guidelines were being judged less harshly, and moreover studios had not yet begun to censor their own films to PG-13-friendly content in order to sell it to every audience possible. In other words, Hollywood had not yet started to think solely in terms of marketable ratings, and rather still maintained the artistically responsible mindset of letting a film’s content dictate its own rating, rather than the other way around.
That all changed by the early 2000s. No one is really sure how the contemporary won’t-anyone-think-of-the-children(?) Hollywood culture got started, but in the wake of public scandals like the 2004 Janet Jackson Superbowl incident, something changed in the American movie business and by extension, the MPAA’s mindset. R-rated films have since become economically toxic for most major blockbuster films, and major American movie studios have censored and butchered their own film productions on numerous occasions to get them down from an R-rating to PG-13.
A good example of this is how franchises established in the 1970s and 1980s have been adapted, remade, or continued with sequels in the modern era. R-rated action, thriller, and horror films were mainstream in those decades, not niche hardcore projects. Back then movies were made for adults, a demographic that is increasingly being targeted by basic cable and premium television channels, of all mediums, where as nowadays most wide-release pictures are made exclusively for children or, at their most explicit, “fun for the whole family.” Likewise, properties that originated in less puritanical times have been considerably toned down and PG-13-nized for today’s more virgin-eyed mass audiences. Some notable emasculations of classic franchises are:
Robocop (R-rated original in 1987; PG-13 remake in 2014)
- Aliens and Predator (R-rated originals in 1979, 1986, 1987, 1990, 1992, 1997; PG-13 crossover in 2004)
- Total Recall (R-rated original in 1990; PG-13 remake in 2012)
- Die Hard (R-rated originals 1988, 1990, 1995; PG-13 sequels in 2007 and 2013)
- Terminator (R-rated originals in 1984, 1991, and 2003; PG-13 sequels in 2009 and 2015)
Even the PG-13 rating itself has become increasingly neutered since the turn of the millennium. Compare the similarly PG-13-rated Anaconda (1997) and its 2004 sequel, The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, or better yet the PG-13 Doc Hollywood (1991) with any comparable romantic comedy from the 2010s and tell me if you spot any gratuitous, drawn-out nudity or sexually charged situations in the latter. You won’t unless you find an R-rated film! Hell, even older films aimed exlusively at young kids and families (i.e. “all ages”) such as The Bad News Bears (1976) and A Christmas Story (1983) had plenty of foul language that you’d never see within a million miles of a family oriented production nowadays. Although if you ask me, those older films were far more realistic the way they depicted children talking and foul-mouthing with each other….
For those of you out there who aren’t cinephiles or haven’t seen a movie made prior to 2004, yes, this is bad for film production as an art form. A movie’s content should never be censored for marketability, and moreover the overwhelming need to make films PG-13 in the contemporary era has ruined many of them. PG-13 ratings, especially the PG-13 as we now know it today, severely restricts the extent to which filmmakers can show explicit content and depict gritty, adult stories on-screen. Sure, many films can exist and operate fine within the realms of modern-day all-ages-friendly standards (e.g. The Winter Soldier ), but many couldn’t and shouldn’t (e.g. all the aforementioned remade 1970-1980s titles). Imagine a PG-13 Pulp Fiction (1994) or PG-13 Wolf of Wall Street (2013), or how about a PG-13 12 Years a Slave (2013) or Schindler’s List (1993) or Saving Private Ryan (1998)? They wouldn’t work.
Sometimes, as the video above states, to tell an adult story, you need to go R. Filmmakers should not be restricted by worrying about ratings and how explicit their projects can be before they will be considered financially unviable. If R-rated adult films were marketable in decades past, than they can be made so in today’s world of free internet porn, raunchy music videos, and the modern “Golden Age of Television” where explicit premium programs like Game of Thrones (2010-present), Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), True Detective (2014-present), Homeland (2011-present) and basic cable programs like Breaking Bad (2008-2013) and The Walking Dead (2010-present) are mainstream pop culture phenomenons.
Particularly for action-junkies like me, this trend is frustrating given how modern day genre films must operate within the realms of zero blood squibs, the notorious one-PG-13-“fuck” limit, and complete censorship of any kind of nudity. The first limitation is perhaps the most infuriating for me. Yes, even in this day and age, the puritanical MPAA is most sensitive to sexuality and especially language, but cinematic violence has been neutered as much as anything else compared to previous decades. For my part, if I see people get shot or repeatedly punched and kneed in the face, and there is absolutely no blood, it pulls me out of the movie-experience constantly because it doesn’t look real. Hell, I bleed profusely when I pick my pimples or when I get a paper cut, so I expect to see some sort of visceral, intense reaction from all the extreme violence I see on-screen. Sometimes extreme violence is just not meant to be suitable for all ages, and yet that doesn’t mean it should censored from ever being made in the first place.
It’s sad that in this day and age, something like District 9 (2009) is considered “extreme” or “desensitizing” when twenty years ago that would’ve been commonplace. Movies like D9 or Jaws or The Raid (2011) are not exploitative or gratuitous; they are simply visceral and intense and harshly unapologetic. I don’t know about you, but I can respect that kind of artistic integrity in a film.
What I can’t respect is something like The Hunger Games (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015) that depicts a diegesis where kids are torn from their families and forced into brutal kill-or-be-killed gladiatorial combat, but the camerawork is so chaotic and incoherent that most of the horrific acts are shown off-screen or depicted so frantically that we can’t tell what the hell’s going on. It’s “violent,” sure, in the loosest sense of the word, but it’s sanitized and more disturbingly, it’s dishonest. As Deadpsin’s Tim Grierson explains in his examination of modern Hollywood action films:
“They’re loud and frenetic with lots of explosions and crashes and shooting, but there’s very little pain or blood or other things that would make you realize that violence in real life is not this much fun.”
This is why certain audiences love foreign flicks like The Raid films (2011, 2014) or Battle Royale (2000) —- because they’re unapologetic about what they are and they aren’t afraid to show violence that’s hard-hitting and is actually, you know, violent. Films like these are increasingly becoming either niche domestic products or foreign films because they’re not trying to sell out to absolutely every audience possible, and thus are more upfront and honest about the action they’re depicting. As a consequence, these movies are often more fun than the sanitized, watered-down violence of more mainstream Hollywood films.
In light of this, don’t ever believe any old fogy or fellow millennial when they say that modern movies have become too violent or sexually explicit. The former has clearly forgotten what movies were like when they were kids, and the latter has absolutely no context. Musical content and basic cable programming, sure, that stuff has gotten a lot more adult-oriented, but what’s playing in the local cineplex every weekend has most certainly not. For some bizarre, inexplicable reason that nobody fully understands, film has gone the complete opposite direction of television and music videos and made itself the audio-visual medium for little kids and their families and no other demographic. That needs to change. Film can’t be allowed to fully operate unless the medium is free from content-censorship and restrictions, regardless of whether those restrictions are economic, legal, or political. Filmmakers can’t be forced to compromise on their artistic vision simply because of age-ratings.