The MPAA rating system

The other night, my wife and I got War Horse from the kindly elves at Netflix.  We were excited to see it, in part because it was the only film nominated for Best Picture last year that we hadn’t seen.  Plus it’s Steven Spielberg, who for me is one of those directors you have to see all of: like Clint, like Quentin, like Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson and Joss Whedon . . . there are others. 

Anyway, it was good, very old-fashioned in its approach.  It felt like How Green Was My Valley, or Ryan’s Daughter–it actually felt a lot like a David Lean film–beautifully staged tracking shots, lovely scenery, really obvious but great looking sets.  A boy and his horse kind of movie.  The premise is this really great horse that the military commandeers for WW I, but the boy who trained it never gives up, knows he will see his horse again.  And does, amidst the death and horror of war. Cue violins. 

Except it’s a film about World War I.  Easily the stupidest war ever fought–completely unnecessary, vicious and brutal, courageous common soldiers led by generals of the most astonishing imbecility.  A war in which men proved again and again and again that an infantry march against entrenched troops armed with machine guns accomplishes exactly nothing except get a lot of people killed.  And Spielberg switches from a tone of elegiac beauty to Saving Private Ryan mode: a storm-the-trenches scene that was brutal and vicious and mean.  Later another scene that was hard to watch–one in which the horse, running panicked through no-man’s-land gets tangled up in barbed wire.  So scenes about the ugliness of war.  Powerfully shot and edited. 

War Horse was given a rating of PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America. 

So the next movie we watched was a low-budget sci-fi thing called Primer.  Not a great movie–I spent a lot of the film trying to figure out what was going on, but intriguing and well acted.  Four yuppie engineers spend their evenings working on this invention of theirs, which turns out to be a time travel machine–time-space paradoxes ensue, and things don’t turn out well for them.  Lots of nerd-speak overlapping dialogue.  No sex, at all.  No nudity, no violence, no Disturbing Images, at all, ever.  It’s possible one of them dropped an F-bomb once or twice, in the midst of the waves of technical language they were using.  I didn’t hear it if they did. 

Primer was given an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America.

It would not be correct, it would not be accurate, to suggest that the MPAA rating system is somewhat flawed, or that it makes some mistakes, or that it could use a little revision.  The rating system is completely insane.  It doesn’t work, at all.  It’s ridiculous. 

If the purpose of the rating system is, as their website suggests, to provide parents some guidance for deciding which movies are appropriate for their children, it fails.  PG-13 suggests that parents could take their kids to see it.  War Horse?  Seriously?  Waaaaayyyy too violent for kids.  R, suggests that the movie has adult subject matter rendering it inappropriate for children.  Uh, Primer?  Kids might be bored by it, but that’s it.  I was a nerdy 13 year old–I would have loved it. 

This is just two films, of course.  I used them because they’re the last two films I saw.  I would argue that every movie is stupidly rated.  I’m hard pressed to think of one I’ve seen that wasn’t. 

In LDS circles, of course, R-rated tends to mean ‘a bad movie.’  I really think a lot of Mormons conflate ‘R-rated’ with ‘pornographic.’  Mormons don’t smoke or drink or see R-rated movies–that’s the trope.  But it’s silly.  The King’s Speech? AtonementThe Descendents?  These are all powerful, redemptive, wonderful films; all were R-rated.   

My wife and I just don’t pay any attention to it anymore.  I happen to remember what these last two films were rated because we were so outraged by War Horse‘s rating. (Not the film, mind you: we liked the film). Generally, though, we don’t even bother to check.

What we do instead is watch previews and read reviews.  We really are informed consumers.  We don’t just see everything.  We want to see good movies.  The rating system provides no guidance whatever in that effort. 

5 thoughts on “The MPAA rating system

  1. Annemarie

    Yep. I agree completely. I grew up with the “R-rated movie=bad” mindset, and I actually remember the exact moment that, epiphany-like, I realized it didn’t work. I was in high school and a girlfriend and I checked out two movies to watch. One was rated PG13, and the other R. I felt very rebellious. Anyway, I’m not sure what the PG13 film was. Nothing special about it, casual sexual relationships, some violence… Obviously, it wasn’t memorable. The R-rated movie was “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which I haven’t seen since, but I remember how I found it very moving and redemptive. It was probably R because Meg Ryan’s character slaps her daughter and because the subject matter is sensitive. But I had a beautiful experience watching that film, whereas the other was basically a waste of time. And I realized two things: that the MPAA doesn’t know what it’s talking about, and that I shouldn’t outsource my decisions on which films are acceptable to me.

    Usually people find this a reasonable point of view. I don’t watch just anything (in fact, these days, I watch hardly anything at all… sigh). I did, however, have someone recently, when the topic came up, sing “Follow the Prophet” at me by way of reproof. Yup. That was… interesting, especially since this same person had just told me how it was nice to go to Canada, since they don’t have movie ratings, so she could “just watch whatever!” lol

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  2. N

    I like http://www.kids-in-mind.com/ , since it gives separate ratings for violence, sex, and profanity for each film – and then, if you’re still unsure, it has a detailed breakdown of what went into each number. Very useful, especially when you have a party with different criteria (A doesn’t want to see violence, B doesn’t want profanity, C doesn’t care…).

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  3. Adam Meyers

    Interestingly enough, back in the ‘day,’ the For Strength of Youth pamphlet said we shouldn’t watch R-rated movies. That was taken out many years ago now, because I assume the Brethren agree it’s an incorrect standard. Most people just don’t know it’s been removed.

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  4. Kiley

    I think that we are much better judges ourselves… Some of those movies ratings are probably obtained through pay-offs anyway. Movie makers paying to have their films rated certain ways to obtain desired audiences…

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