Monday, December 31, 2007

From 2007: Five Movies That Prove MPAA Ratings Are Broken

[You can digg this post by clicking here.]

In Kirby Dick’s film, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” Dick examines the MPAA ratings board members and explores the sketchy and seedy underbelly of our country’s ratings system. We learn that ratings, far from being an exact science, often leave people guessing as to what criteria are used when evaluating their films; that MPAA ratings amount to censorship; that raters are probably subject to the whims of studio pressure; and, ultimately, that the ratings board is completely unaccountable for its actions.

More than any year in recent memory, 2007 demonstrated that these assertions are true, through the preposterous ratings that have come out for some of the year’s most popular and/or highest grossing films. And while I will examine some of them during the course of this post, there are several premises that I base my arguments on, which will be important to understand before I get going:

Rating a movie with an R rating limits its reach, its audience, and potentially, its grosses – Since R is the only rating (other than NC-17) that actually prevents someone from being able to get into the theater, directors and studios will often bend over backwards to get the coveted PG-13 for an adult-themed movie. The reasons are obvious: PG-13 ratings open up the huge 12-16-year old market, and allows them to get into the theater unhindered (My local movie theater, for example, actually cards).

Parents trust film ratings as a guide to tell them whether or not they should take their children to see a film – Whether they are right to do so or not, the fact that they do remains a fact of life. And when parents take small children in to see a film that features dozens of maimings, impalings, and brutal murders because it’s only rated PG-13, you know that the system is broken somewhere.

Independent film studios hold less sway over the MPAA than big established studios – Paramount, Universal, and Disney have more money, more power, and more influence.

The MPAA has established itself as the de facto gatekeeper of who gets in and out of films. I don’t necessarily mind this, but if they’re going to do it, all I have to say is: don’t do such a crappy job of it. Without further ado, here are five films from 2007 that prove that the MPAA ratings system is unequivocally broken:

5. Once
What it was rated: R
What it should have been rated: Anything else less severe
Comments: One of the ratings rules that has actually become quite evident is the prohibition against the F-word. “Once,” winner and nominee of many awards (and listed by many critics as one of the best films of the year) is a completely innocuous, innocent, and sweet love story in which two people find a shared affection of music and for each other. But because the F-bomb is dropped a few times, the MPAA decided that it’s too extreme for your kids to watch. Also, in this slot, feel free to put in any other independent film this year (or any other year) that’s been dicked over by the MPAA’s shenanigans. While this example in and of itself is not enough to demonstrate the MPAA’s incompetence, the ones that follow show how ridiculous the “Once” rating decision truly was.

Here's a preview of "Once":

click here for the clip

4. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
What it was rated: PG-13
What it should have been rated: R
Comments: In an obvious display of Disney’s influence, this brutal film was given a PG-13, undoubtedly a fact that allowed it to rocket to an incredible box office take. The movie opens with the public hanging of a 10-year old boy, and features countless killings and maimings of pirates and soldiers, a couple scenes in which people are brutally burned by cannonball fire, an attempted rape, and in the most disturbing scene of the film, the complete annihilation of a man’s face with a Davy Jones’ tentacles. Not pleasant to watch and not appropriate for kids, despite its Disneyland ride pedigree.

Bonus video
: See this spoiler-y video while it's still up and decide for yourself (fast forward to 6 minutes in to see what I think is the most gruesome death in the film):

3. Live Free or Die Hard
What it was rated: PG-13
What it should have been rated: R
Comments: The MPAA’s liberal stance on violence and conservativeness on foul language is fully on display here. It’s okay to show Bruce Willis graphically putting a gun into a wound in his shoulder and pulling the trigger, but having him say “Yipee Kay-yay Motherfucker,” as McClane’s character was meant to do is, of course, unacceptable. The film also featured a woman getting hit by a car, then plunging to a fiery death, dozens of graphic gunshot deaths, and a man getting ground up into a fine hamburger-y pulp. But no F-word and no sex means that kids are allowed to check this one out. Go here for the opposite perspective on this issue.

Bonus Video: Ignore the music and check out this summary of many of the film's killings (spoilers within):

Click here for the clip

2. Beowulf
What it was rated: PG-13
What it should have been rated: R
Comments: Despite being animated, this movie features an Angelina Jolie that’s basically naked, a hideous monster that murders - often brutally - dozens of townspeople (for example, he tore one in two and chewed off another one's head, slowly), several impalings, a graphic dislocation of an arm, a graphic severing of an arm, and lots of gore in the slaying of the monsters featured. One character's family is burned alive, although this is only implied off screen. I went to see it in IMAX 3d (a great experience, by any stretch of the imagination) but was disappointed to find out that several families had brought infants in with them to see the film. As I saw Grendel's horrific visage barrel onto the screen, a prelude to his murderous rampage, I myself was on the edge of my seat and just a little frightened. I can't imagine the mental scars that these kids in the audience would have to bear. Beowulf 3D is what little kids' nightmares are made of.

Bonus Video: Beowulf, rated PG-13, ironically has a red band trailer. Catch a glimpse of the gore here:

Click here for the clip
1. Taxi to the Dark Side
Comments: "Taxi to the Dark Side" is Alex Gibney's yet-to-be-released documentary looking at how our country slowly transformed, post-9/11, into one that tortures civillians and ignores the Geneva conventions. This top example on my list doesn’t concern the film’s rating as much as the MPAA’s preposterous decision to censor its poster, seen above (which, let’s all admit, is not so much inappropriate as it is shocking in its veracity). As Boing Boing put it, “MPAA message? Torture for entertainment is suitable for all ages. Torture examined in a documentary is not.” In a society in which the real-life torture of terrorists suspects is so salient to the American image in the world at large, the MPAA’s hampering of this movie’s messages strikes me as especially despicable.


Reading over this post again, I sound like a prude, but in fact, I'm not arguing against violence, sex, or language in movies. I am strongly against censorship in any form, whether that comes in the form of an NC-17 rating for movies or an AO rating for videogames. I'm arguing that the MPAA should either 1) Use clear, sensible standards that every movie can abide by, and/or 2) Be publicly accountable with the methodology it currently rates films. Usually the argument about parents taking children in to see adult films is that the parents should know better. But if the MPAA does such a horrendous job of informing them, then I think more of the blame should fall on the organization them than on the parents.

Shame on you, MPAA. Shame on you for censoring great indendent films, while simultaneously bending to the will of studios and using leniency on their ratings. Shame on you for all the kids you've scarred by allowing their uninformed parents to take them into see the atrocities in films like "Beowulf." And shame on you for using politics in a time when America needs more honesty and self-examination about its international activities, more than ever.


If you liked this article, you'll probably like these:

What Do Bioshock and The Incredibles Have In Common

The Top 5 Jason Bourne Improvised Weapons

Why Do Great Films Get Awful DVD Cover Art


Update 1: Added in the word "sensible" to 2nd to last paragraph


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with what you are saying. When I saw Beowulf, I was like wow, this is a PG-13 movie. My friend and I were just amazed how it got past the MPAA like that. I think the MPAA is becoming worse and worse every year. But overall a great post!

reubix said...

Nice article but the easiest summary for anything related to American Money is money talks and bullshit walks. Sad but true.

La Familia Higgy said...

Thanks for the interesting list. I've seen a lot of PG-13 films that should be rated R and vice versa. That is why I use to get the whole picture. The website breaks down what happens in regards to violence, sex & language without ruining the plot. As a father, its very important to know what my children are watching.

You say that you're against all forms of censorship. Do you mean on a personal level as well or strictly on a government/society level? I have to censor things around me & my family on a daily basis because there is bad stuff that I don't want in my life.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

I saw "Once" at the Traverse City Film Festival last summer. I loved the movie and was absolutely floored to find out that it had an R rating! Unbelievable that "Once" was rated R and that Beowolf was PG-13!

Anonymous said...

Beowolf was definitly R and I'm glad I didnt' bring my kids for sure. You are right that the ratings system is broken. I agree on most of your ratings!!

derrick said...

So a couple movies should be bumped up or down a notch, and this is your list of "five movies that prove MPAA ratings are broken"? Maybe you don't agree with their rules (I don't), but your list shows that if anything they are at least consistent. Lots of foul language will get you an R rating. There's no big conspiracy or corporations fucking over the little guy for their own benefit revealed here.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment. I found this article on DIGG and I can't help but think that if the MPAA cracked down, DIGG's users (liberal folk) would immediately scream "Look how the Conservatives are squashing our freedom of speech!"

CCNA Discovery said...

You've made a great article there. I look forward to reading your other posts. :)

Tyler said...

When I saw Beowulf, there were probably about a dozen children under the age of 10. Every scene that was extremely violent or frightening had those children screaming their heads off. Definitely a retarded system.

benvladimir said...

You see bombings on the news in real life. Whats wrong with seeing them on the movie screen?

Anonymous said...

Pretty much the rest of the "Western" world finds the USA bizarre for its rabid dislike of titties and swearing combined with a love of violence.

Still scratching my head in Canada...

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with pretty much everything you say. World's End was as PG 13 as say Gladiator.

I think Beowulf would have been a better movie if it had been a hard R but it was definitely PG-13. Little or no blood, just shadows of the truly violent action.

As for Bad parents taking there kids to see inappropriate movies, I watched Event Horizon and behind me sat two kids under eight with their parents. said...

benvladimir: New in real life doesn't show the gruesome details like movies do, and they still generally precede the clip with a specific warning.

dvdchris said...

Derrick, you need to watch This Film Is Not Yet Rated and see the conspiracy and the corporations (MPAA + big 5 studios) screw the little guy (independent filmmakers) all the time. They continually engage in censorship against content they don't agree with while assisting big studio films to achieve the glorious PG13 rating; and allow torture porn to be R instead of NC17.
I could tell from the previews that Beowulf should have been R and was floored when it was PG13.

Anonymous said...

I agree with this. Not because I don't like violence, sex, or whatso, but it's a stupid rating system.

"Once"- I'm surprised if no teen has ever used the F-word. Rated R for a few words someone would shout out in the streets? Who rates these movies? I'd do a better job for free.

The rest I haven't seen, or bothered to watch. A PG-13 movie like DH4 is pretty violent. I was surprised that wasn't an R.

That documentary looks good. Are movies like Hostel and Saw better? Those two movies actually gave me ideas, which freaks the crap out of me. Torture porn over documnetary? I guess porn sells.

Movies should just not be rated at all. Or there should be a new "16+" category. Not exactly R material, but not suitable for younger kids.

Anonymous said...

the movie rating post was great. well written, well argued, and I agree with your positions. It is amazing how in our nation there can be such blatant censorship of government criticism and obvious bending of the rules for big business (disney). what is the word for a system of government where large corporations and business interests are favored above the will of the people?...fascism.
Bush, chenye and the congress have used Sept 11 to destroy our great free nation. this article points out another example of the fascist nation we have become. sad but true

Marcus said...

I don't know if this has been said in another comment, but Live Free or Die Hard even had scenes recorded for an R-Rating (a lot of scenes have been dubbed to change the dialogue into something more suitable), and an unrated DVD edition has been released, with fucks, blood, etc.

Anonymous said...

Nice article. Just wanted to let you know that "Once" got a G comparable rating in Germany.

Reel Fanatic said...

That rating for "Once" is simply atrocious ... If there was even any objectionable language in John Carney's film, I certainly didn't notice it as I was being swept away by its charms

Anonymous said...

I had the same Beowulf 3D experience! A woman bought 6 tickets in line in front of us... then I'm sitting in the theater and her, her husband and 4 children between the ages 2 and 6 sit directly behind me.
They proceeded to whimper and cry and ask to leave because, to be honest, Grendel is freakin' scary.
Dad's answer?
"Shut your eyes, sweetie."

metheglen said...

I'm surprised that you missed out I Am Legend here. There's a film that was given a PG-13 and should have been given at least an NC-17. That a family came to that with their 3, 6 and 10 year-olds in tow and the 3 cried throughout was enough to tell me that there should be some stricter controls here. Yeah - Zombies are just make believe, but that thing scared the c**p outta me on a couple occasions and I LIKE horror.

Anonymous said... is also a good resource
i dont trust ratings any more
its dollars driven

Sarah said...

I'd argue that the mistake was made way back when they were coming up with a single rating. ScreenIt's system makes much more sense: grading on about a dozen variables, from sexual content to "jump" scenes and obnoxious attitudes. My dad's hatred of Simpsons-style rudeness and my absolute inability to stand blood and gore are both given equal footing.

You've already given up the core issue when you say things like "Beowulf should have been an 'R' film." We don't have a quasi-governmental agency "rating" foods as "healthy," "kind of healthy," "not so great," and "kids shouldn't be allowed to eat it" -- and the few products we have in the "only adults can purchase this" category have introduced a whole host of problems. We shouldn't be surprised that generic, judgmental, "please turn off your brain when we stamp this product" rating systems produce massive inefficiencies, rent-seeking, and the rest of it. I mean, um, duh.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the author completely. Ratings seem to misleading, and as a parent, I do rely on them. However, I'm not beyond walking out on a film that I think is inappropriate for my children, and I think a little research ahead of time can help prevent having to do that.

I did go to see Pirates, and was shocked to see the opening scene shows the hanging of a child. It was a terrible movie overall, and I agree did not merit a PG-13 rating.

That said, I don't want to take my children to movies with f-bombs either, and although from the preview Once looks like a terrific story with a lot of heart, it doesn't look like it's really geared toward kids anyway.

Ultimately it's up to the parents to decide what they think is appropriate for their children. Not some board of nameless people. Take some interest in your children parents, do the research. It's only takes a moment of your time.

Anonymous said...

Kids read beowulf in high school or earlier..... and I am sure they could do a lot worse with their imaginations running wild from the story.... if only they read.

Peter said...

And then there were some movies like, Hostel II that should have been NC-17 and not just R. Because just because you have your parent there doesn't mean you should be able to see a woman graphically disembowled. =^L

Dirk Belligerent said...

"Be Cool" commented on these ridiculous rating rules in its opening scene. In addition to "Once", another film tagged with an R for f-bombs was "Touching The Void" because an injured mountaineer, who has just fallen into an ice cave to what appears to be certain death, unleashes a torrent in frustration. Not exactly "Scarface", but it's rated the same.

Ten years ago, a nice extended shot of Kate Winslet's breast didn't prevent "Titanic" from staying within PG-13, but in 1976 "Network" had an R-rating for a little nudity in an unsexy sex scene and profanity. Ironically, when aired on regular TV, they frequently left the swearing in, so the MPAA has been all over the map for more than the past few years.

That parents are bringing their children to R-rated films isn't the MPAA's fault. I sat in horror as I realized that some moronic mother had her two kindergarten-aged spawnlings at "Bad Boys II". Instead of waiting for the flick to come to home video, she took them to the show. I think this is because it's cheaper to buy the kids a ticket than hire a sitter for the evening. Even so, it shows how selfish these breeders are that they can't defer their entertainment until a proper moment.

How about the demands of the liberal fascists that smoking in movies automatically trigger an R or NC-17 rating? I was watching "Raiders of the Lost Ark" recently and marveled at all the smoking. Perhaps Spielberg can erase the cigs and have everyone holding walkie-talkies?

It's too bad that at the end you had to slip in some good ol' liberal America-hating with "And shame on you for using politics in a time when America needs more honesty and self-examination about its international activities, more than ever. Terrorists aren't entitled to Geneva Conventions protections because they aren't signatories and they aren't playing by the rules of war. When the Islamofascists stop slaughtering civilians, beheading captive soldiers, hiding their troops and munitions in UN ambulances and mosques and schools - you know, fight like warriors and not terrorists - then we can discuss whether their po' widdle feewings are being infringed. The ignorance of our enemies will be the death of Western civilization. When the Islamists take charge, we won't have to worry about whether the ratings are incoherent because we won't have movies to watch in the first place. We aren't the bad guys. Wake up!

Otherwise, decent article.

Marcus said...

Amelie from Montmartre got an R-Rating because of a short, funny scene with women getting orgasms. I don't even think you see nudity. But since when can't kids handle nudity? I live in Denmark, we have nudity in tv commercials and stuff like that frequently. Just yesterday I saw a trailer for Wedding Crashers on a random channel, and it showed naked women. We don't care, because there's nothing to care about.

Dirk Belligerent, I disagree, first of all, a lot of the prisoners haven't been convicted of anything, you don't know if they're terrorists, so of course they deserve to be treated properly. I even think the worst terrorists deserve to be treated according to the Geneva Convention, if we don't, we're no better than they are.

Ted said...

Why on earth would you take a child to see Beowulf, with an image of a bloody warrior with a sword on the cover? I think it is ridiculous to bank on some interest group to make a decision like that, instead of exercising a germ of judgement as a parent or viewer.

Most of these films are self-evidently hard. Anytime "Die" is in the title, for example. This is not rocket science. Anyone caught off guard by anything these days is doing it on purpose.

Cassandra said...

I saw At World's End in Shanghai over the summer and the opening scen you talk about was not in it. I guess China doesn't really rate movies so much as chop them to bits.

Thanks for this article though. I was wondering why At World's End got rave reviews over here in Canada and yet for me, most of the movie didn't make much sense. Guess I better rent it to watch it again.

Vitajex said...

One recent film that tipped me off to the MPAA's incompetence was Disney/Pixar's "Ratatouille". It's an excellent film, but it contains two scenes of gunplay (one of those scenes even alluding to a kinky BDSM relationship sort of like Alexandre Rockwell's segment in "Four Rooms") and is rated 'G'. Only Disney with their fathoms-deep pockets could pay to buy that 'G' rating...

nokuanime32 said...

Another good example: Billy Elliot. An excellent and inspirational movie, great for teens. But it gets an R just because of a few f-bombs. What those MPAA people don't know is, that's how people talk in the West End. I agree with the dude (or girl) who said there needs to be another rating. Actually there need to be 2. One, PG-10 for films that are at the bottom of PG-13 yet are too scary, suggestive, etc for PG-13, such as Bride and Prejudice, Bend it Like Beckham or the Spider-Man series. The other, PG-15 would be for films that are too strong for PG-13 yet not bad enough for R, such as 4 of the films you mentioned. That's the way I see it.