5 Movie Ratings That Would Actually Be Helpful
We all know the movie rating system is super broken, but the fact remains that we do need something to categorize the content of the films getting released, right? Movies are a huge part of our lives, and not only do parents need some sort of indication of whether or not a film is going to be appropriate for their kids but I need a clean, clinical signal letting me know whether or not an upcoming horror film is going to give me an erection.
"Good to go."
But even aside from the weirdly idiosyncratic values that the Motion Picture Association of America espouses, I'd argue that their entire approach is flawed: there are far more disturbing things in movies than sex and violence. And this is why I think that, in the interest of stimulating and preserving one of our biggest industries and our most important national export, I suggest we replace the traditional G, PG, PG-13, and R with a more nuanced rating system that tells us ...
If the Writer Has a Weird Political Ax to Grind
Worst Offenders: Star Trek Into Darkness, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Ghostbusters, Most Michael Bay Movies
It's usually pretty stupid when we hear people complaining about secret messages hidden in movies, generally because those people are Rush Limbaugh and their theories are nonsensical. But even if the theories we hear about are crazy, it's not exactly unheard-of for weird-ass political messages to climb inside our favorite movies and start dry-humping our eyeballs from behind the projection screen.
Image rated R.
Sometimes this shit is obvious (I'm pretty sure no one is surprised that The Day After Tomorrow has a heavy-handed environmental message) but other times, it's out of nowhere. Who expected Ghostbusters to be violently anti-big-government? Or the Saw movies to endorse Obamacare? Or that Avatar -- a sci-fi adventure about blue-space-alien sex set in a space-jungle and filmed entirely with space-cameras -- would name-check the War on Terror? Or -- possibly weirdest of all -- that Star Trek: Into Darkness (Fuck you, J.J. Abrams, that title needs a colon) is secretly about 9/11 Trutherism?
If we're worried about depictions of violence making kids more violent or references to sex making kids more ... whatever it is people think that'll do to kids ... surely we can spare some concern for them being politically brainwashed, right? What meeting did we have where we decided that dropping the F-bomb was more damaging to a young'n's mind than being implicitly told that supporting American military action in the Middle East will kill weirdly colored space-babes?
Shit, sorry. Wrong Zoe Saldana.
And if you're worried this'll spoil the picture, then jeez, just don't read the rating. Also, why did you refer to a movie as a "picture"? This isn't 1943. Get with the times, dog.
If the Production Went to Hell
Worst Offenders: The Wolfman, Alien 3, Babylon A.D., Heaven's Gate
I saw Alien 3 at age 6, because my cousin came to visit and she promised my mom that it was "no worse than anything else I had already seen." Which was technically true, because my cousin had already secretly shown me Alien, Aliens, and The Terminator. I'm telling you this because Alien 3 really messed up my development as a person. Not because I had my heart broken by watching Ripley, the baddest-ass ever launched into space, get killed off in an obnoxiously Jesusy way.
Weird Jesus Imagery would go in the last entry too.
And not because we lost Hicks and Newt off-screen, even though that was such a disastrously terrible decision that the simple act of trying to fix it sank the game Aliens: Colonial Marines (that may have had other problems as well). No, that movie messed up my development because for years I thought David Fincher was a shitty director. When I saw Se7en, I assumed it was a fluke, and probably more due to the performances by the lead actors than the director. And when I saw Fight Club, I was surprised that Fincher had stumbled into two great movies, because in my eyes his work on Alien 3 was irredeemable, because I had no idea that Alien 3 was not his fault.
Alien 3 was such a disaster that the "making of" feature was originally called "Wreckage and Rape," with the "rape" part being an implicit reference to not only what the alien does to its victims, but what the studio did to the movie: when Fincher was hired, $7 million of the budget had already been spent, and despite there being virtually no script, he already had a monastery set that he somehow had to work into his movie about dick-headed space monsters. Oh -- and this was his first feature film.
Another example of how crazy this production was: the movie was at one point set
on a wooden death star populated by space monks.
That's a particularly extreme example, but it's far from the only one: Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth) went through something similar with his first big Hollywood movie, Mimic. Mathieu Kassovitz has made an entire documentary about how he wasn't allowed to make a movie out of Babylon A.D. Compare the theatrical release of Kingdom of Heaven with the director's cut to get another good sense of how big a difference this can make. The Wolfman (directed by Joe Johnston, who took over for Mark Romanek) actually makes more sense when you read about how there were two totally different visions from two completely different directors. Because at least then it becomes clear that you're watching two halves of two completely different movies.
My point is, an H-rated movie isn't the movie that anyone involved wanted to make, and we as the audience should probably know that. Hell, if we're big enough fans of the people involved, maybe we'll go see it anyway. Out of the goodness of our hearts, say. Or because we're suckers.
If It's Full of Bloodless Violence
Worst Offenders: Transformers 4, Man of Steel and most other superhero movies, The Hunger Games, any action movie that got cut down to PG-13
General consensus is that you rate a movie's violence by how many pixels of blood you see on-screen. I dunno the actual number, but I know that if you cut a frame here, a frame there, and a word or two from Live Free or Die Hard, you can sell tickets to 14-year-olds with a clear conscience. When ... uh, when did we decide that was the best way to do it? And where was this meeting held? Can I come to the next one? I'll bring a cobbler. I'll learn how to make cobbler and then bring a cobbler.
I'll learn how to make cobbler, bring two cobblers, and one cobbler won't have any filling.
Those shots are from the "theatrical" and "unrated" versions of Live Free or Die Hard, and I'm having a lot of trouble telling why one is worse than the other. In both cases that dude is dead, and his mother is going to cry at his funeral, and no one's going to feed his puppy for, like, three days until the incessant yapping makes his neighbor kick the door down. Then his neighbor will stand there, heroically silhouetted in the dust, with a giant bag of kibble. It's a heartwarming adventure of love, longing, and redemption. Puppy Rescue, coming to theaters this fall (rated R for graphic sexual content).
To get to the point of what I'm talking about, compare a fight scene from Starship Troopers with the defending X-Mansion scene from X-Men 2. In the first one, we get a goofy parody of heroism and war. In the second one, a crazy guy with PTSD murders 14 people (I counted) in order to defend children from an army of kidnappers. But the first one is rated R because of the blood, while the second is PG-13. Wolverine can literally kill as many people as the screenwriter wants on-screen, but as long as we don't see the consequences of those deaths (spurting blood, shitting pants, expletive-laden screams of agony and existential terror punctuated by gurgling and sobs) it's fine.
The comics are pretty different.
And then of course there's The Hunger Games, where children are forced by a corrupt dystopian government to fight to the death, but it's PG-13 because we don't see any blood when that, ya know, preteen girl slowly dies on-screen.
Now, I'm not saying that kids shouldn't be allowed to see these movies, because that probably depends on the kid. I'm saying that no matter which side is right in the "should kids be allowed to see violence in movies" debate, it's super weird that we're willing to show them only violence without consequences. We can show the gun get fired, but not the organs ripped apart -- even though gun-firing is the fun part, and the ripped organs are the reasons you should be careful. We're showing them the fun part without the consequences. It's like saying it's OK to show kids hardcore sex, but only as long as we don't tell them about STDs or unplanned pregnancy. By censoring violence in this one specific way, we're guaranteeing that kids see only violence that warps their understanding of it in such a way that makes them more likely to be violent. The MPAA is, by their own logic, making the world worse.
So I say flip it. Set up the rating system so that we measure the violence committed against the consequences. A consequence-to-violence ratio that can be determined using ... ya know, math (I'm outsourcing the math part). Because, overall, that's a healthier way to look at it, and that way parents will know that if they take their kid to go see Transformers, they'll know that the message is going to be "destroying stuff is awesome, and everything is fine afterward." Oh, and speaking of Transformers ...
If It's Racist
Worst offenders: Transformers, 300, 300 Rise of an Empire
Look, I respect that this is a controversial subject, and I don't want to alienate anybody. The whole point of my new suggestions is to remove some of the ambiguity. So I'm not suggesting we label a movie like The Blind Side or The Help racist for focusing on heroic white characters who save poor black people, because at least there's conversation to be had there. Is Lord of the Rings racist? Sure; it's weird that all the orcs are inarguably evil, and it's for some reason fine to show their blood even though they clearly have thoughts and feelings and fears and aspirations, but that's a gray area, and we can't expect this newly revised MPAA to catch everything. They are, after all, neither gods nor fools.
But surely everyone who saw Transformers knows that this ...
... isn't cool, right? There's something seriously wrong with those characters. Those are just walking stereotypes being used for comedic purposes, not characters. Then there are the Persian Immortals from 300, where they just put orcs in turbans and say they're Persians.
That's particularly insane, because Persians didn't even wear turbans back then. The story just hates brown people. I dunno. My point is, right now someone could do a shot-for-shot remake of Birth of a Nation and get an easier release than a documentary about bullying, and that seems wrong to me because, I mean, obviously it's objectively wrong.
When Women Aren't Characters
Worst Offenders: Every Christopher Nolan movie, and most other movies, but jeez, Nolan -- it's getting sorta creepy
My biggest concern about this rating is that it'd be overused. For example, what if you had text that said, "A prominent female character only exists so she can die and motivate the protagonist." You'd have to slap that baby right on the cover of every The Prestige, Inception, Memento -- uh, every Chris Nolan movie, actually -- Gladiator, Mad Max, every James Bond movie (it's actually part of the formula), Se7en; if you expand it to "women being in danger," it's basically every movie, ever.
You're going to get sick of that line way before the video ends. We're talking about protecting children, after all, and this has to be doing a pretty good job of messing with their heads, right? If boys get to grow up and fantasize about being, uh, any of the characters with guns in the video, what are girls supposed to fantasize about? Looking sexy while they choke to death?
But I'm not just worried about girls -- I'm worried about boys too. I mean, look at this:
That's not what a person looks like. Where are her kidneys? And yet, it's sexy as hell. Artists have figured out how to hack into our brains so well that they can slap together a nigh-faceless collage of colors and curves and our brains immediately snap to, "Let's put our semen there!" I understand that's the point, but we're making that point in a kid's movie, meaning they probably kick-started a bunch of male sexual development in objectively the wrong direction.
Now, I'm not saying that artists shouldn't be allowed to put this stuff in their movies. I don't think anyone is saying that, actually. But if they're going to use weird tricks that I don't understand to hack into my brain and make me think a certain thing or want a certain thing or get an erection, I at least want a freaking warning first. Preferably in white, bold, all-caps letters, with a drop shadow. Against a dark green background. Maybe with a white outline and a logo that looks sorta like a dick with four testicles coming right at your face so fast it's creating ripples in the air around it.
You heard what I said about messed-up sexual development.
Or we could do away with warning labels altogether because the content of a piece of art is impossible to distill to a single letter category, and besides, parents should be doing their own research and personally vetting what recreational media their kids consume, instead of demanding popular culture and for-profit media be their fucking babysitter. I could honestly go either way. But if our hearts are set on a rating system, at least make it useful.
JF Sargent is an editor and columnist at Cracked. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
For more from Sarge, check out 4 Personality Flaws Movies Think Are Awesome. And then check out 20 Types of People That Should Come With Warning Labels.