Ben Steelman: Overrated? It’s a PG-13 world; we’re just living in it
Remember “Demolition Man,” the old Sylvester Stallone sci-fi movie set in a future where all restaurants are Taco Bell? (It was kind of a dystopia.)
Well, in a way, we’ve reached that point. We live in a world where all movies are now PG-13.
Well, not quite, but PG-13 features, by themselves, account for roughly half of all theatrical releases, and they tend to be the highest grossers. Look at 2015 to date: “Jurassic World”? PG-13. “Avengers: Age of Ultron”? PG-13. “Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation”? PG-13.”Terminator Genisys”? PG-13.
Oh, there are still some outliers. Pixar’s animated “Inside Out” was pegged as “PG” while Amy Schumer’s raunchy romantic comedy “Trainwreck” came in at an R. But most multiplex offerings will come in as PG-13. Good luck finding a G-rated film any more.
Of the top 10 titles on Box Office Mojo’s list of all-time highest-grossing films, nine — including “Avatar,” “Titanic” and the shot-in-Wilmington “Iron Man 3” — were rated PG-13. The only exception is “Frozen” (PG).
PG-13 — “Parents strongly cautioned, some material may be inappropriate for children under 13” — just passed a milestone of sorts. It was not part of the Motion Picture Association of America’s original movie ratings established in 1970. Rather, it came along in the ’80s. The first PG-13 feature was the John Milius action film “Red Dawn,” released Aug. 11, 1984.
The rating was proposed by none other than Steven Spielberg, who got stung twice in 1984 by angry parents and do-gooders. First came the movie “Gremlins,” which Spielberg produced, in which a lot of those cute but evil little creatures met bad ends at the hands of humans trying to defend themselves. (One was fried, alive, in a microwave.)
Then came Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” with its notorious heart-grabbing human sacrifice scene. Lots of little kids were apparently upset, or at least their moms were.
Arguably, there was a case for an intermediate rating between the comparatively mild PG and the harder R (“under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian”). “Jaws,” for example, was rated PG when it first came out in 1975.
Now, however, PG-13 largely serves as what Gary Susman of MovieFone terms “a marketing tool.” It assures teens and pre-teens — the core audience at the multiplex — that a new release is not for babies, while reassuring their parents that it’s not too extreme.
Trouble is, that’s not always the case. For decades, critics have savaged the MPAA for being puritanical about sexual content but blase about violence, especially gun violence. This holds true particularly for PG-13. One pediatricians’ group took a count, a year or so back, and found that gun violence in PG-13 movies has tripled since 1985 — and that there was more ultra-violent content in PG-13 features than in R features.
The MPAA’s ratings rules have long been an object of ridicule. More than one f-bomb, for example, still automatically earns a film an R, which leads to occasional absurdities. “The King’s Speech,” a decorous, “Masterpiece”-style costume drama you could take your maiden aunt to, was slapped with an R on first release because poor King George cussed in frustration at his stammer.
Drug use, teen drinking and even smoking can give the MPAA ratings mavens the conniptions. “The Imitation Game,” another decorous period piece, was tagged PG-13 because of “historical smoking.” Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” a sensitive, mature treatment of growing up, became an “R” movie because the boys popped some beer cans, experimented with drugs and cussed.
Is “Boyhood” more likely to inspire aberrant behavior than, say, “The Dark Knight” or “Furious 7,” both of which are PG-13?
I oppose censorship, but I remember “A Clockwork Orange,” and I have to ask author Anthony Burgess’ question: What does prolonged exposure to images of extreme violence, gunfire and torture do to us? Does it desensitize? And should we be letting our kids watch this stuff?
Contact StarNews Media writer Ben Steelman at Ben.Steelman@StarNewsOnline.com.