I’ll Have A PG-13 Please… Extra Violence, Hold the Sex

When you watch as many movies as I do, you begin to see patterns developing—not only in types of movies made, but also how they are fine-tuned to fit into a particular classification. This is especially true of the popular PG-13 slot.

For a basic understanding of the ratings, one should start by reading the guidelines published by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America.) Yet, to better interpret how they are applied, I offer my observations of the subtle workings of the ratings machine.

I have found the various criteria listed in the categories for sex, violence, and language, are not always weighted independently. In other words, a film that has minimal content concerns in one area, but heavier levels in another, may be awarded a “balanced” rating.

Here’s an extreme example: A few years ago, the movie Mansfield Park received a PG-13 rating even though it included a shocking scene depicting intercourse, complete with nudity. Because this adaptation of Jane Austin’s novel provides no profanities and only glimpses of hand-drawn images of violence, it appears the sum total of the parts kept the film from receiving the R-rating such graphic sexuality would normally merit.

Usually I notice this unwritten averaging of content in flicks favoring violence. And, this ongoing trend appears to be on an upswing.

In 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, the only sexual content you’ll view is a bikini and a quick shot of a man and woman in bed wearing the kind of pajamas your mom gave you for Christmas.

During the rest of the film, the violent action is wall-to-wall. Extended scenes detail fights involving all sorts of weapons and hand-to-hand combat. One altercation portrays a man gasping for air while his combatant chokes him to death. A drowning and an intense car crash, both with bloody details, round out the offerings.

A PG-13 rating for the violence in this film was surprising, considering only a couple of years ago any gore associated with violence was usually granted an R-rating.

The same can be said of The Chronicles of Riddick. Explicit stabbing and impaling portrayals, as well as people being choked to death and eaten alive by alien animals, are added to the sci-fi violence typical of this genre. Enhanced with graphic sound effects, this film should have been sent to R territory. However, with only a couple of mild sensual moments, the MPAA ratings board felt this movie was acceptable material for your 13 year old.

Other titles pulling fewer sexual punches in order to leave room for more physical blows include The Rundown, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, and Van Helsing. Arguably, even The Lord of the Rings movies would have risked an R if there had been just a hint more sensuality or profane language.

To improve your ability to select family movies, hone your detective skills by making sure you have all the ratings information—not just the classifications. That means on a film like The Bourne Supremacy, you need to read the entire official statement, which is: Rated PG-13. for (and this is the important part) “violence and intense action and brief language.”

You can learn a lot from those seven little words, if you are aware that the MPAA lists content concerns in order of occurrence or intensity (just like food labels). In this case their ratings board felt “violence” was the chief concern, followed by “intense action” (that means car chases, dark alleys, etc.) and then language.

Notice there’s no mention of sex. That’s your clue this movie may contain more violence than other PG-13 films, simply because sex is missing. (Of course, the assumption may not be true, but there’s a good chance a film of this genre will tend to be as violent as the rating will allow.)

Deciphering the movie’s descriptor for Chronicles of Riddick, which states “Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action and some language,” requires an understanding how the rating board uses certain words. “Intense” is their way of saying the violence is unusually strong for this rating category. “Sequences” means not a passing moment, but multiple shots forming scenarios that may last for minutes—or throughout the whole film.

Inquisitive minds may want to go another step and visit the MPAA’s website at www.filmratings.com to find particulars not published on the movie poster. For instance, if you search for Riddick, you will find the above rating information, as well as the statement: “Previously rated (R) in (04).” That means this movie was once classified “Restricted” but now isn’t. Why?

The answer can be found by clicking on the three red asterisks at the bottom of the screen. That will take you to a chart indicating *** means the film was re-edited to achieve a reduced rating. (Other symbols are also explained. A film with a “+” means the studio appealed and received a lower rating. A hyphen (-) usually means the film was released many years ago, but has been freshly reviewed using contemporary standards.)

Now you know that Chronicles of Riddick was once an R movie, but a few carefully placed snips allows it to fit into a PG-13 rating. Trust me… these always indicate a very tight squeeze into the lower category.

So don’t forget to pull out your magnifying glass and check out the fine print before heading into the theater. With a little determination and know how, you can read “between the ratings,” and be better equipped to find movies that won’t leave your family surprised or embarrassed.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…