Should we be afraid of PG-13?

With the Alien prequel and a Hellraiser remake both targeting a PG-13 rating, should we fear that? Or does PG-13 actually let you get away with more than you think?

Earlier in the week, news started to filter through that the currently-planned remake of Hellraiser was finally heading towards production. Thus, we had the announcement of the film’s director, Christian E Christiansen, and possibly even its star, with Amber Heard circling the project.

And we also had the revelation that The Weinstein Company was looking for its new Hellraiser to come adorned with a PG-13 rating. For those not familiar with the US rating system, this basically means that anybody can walk through the door and see the film. A 6-year old could buy a ticket. The tougher R rating still allows under 17s in, but they have to be accompanied by a “parent or adult guardian”.

Unsurprisingly, the revelation that a PG-13 Hellraiser was being made hasn’t gone down well. And it’s also followed in the slipstream of news that Fox’s planned Alien prequel may well be heading down the PG-13 route. Outrage has not been in short supply.

And yet, it’d be wrong not to at least consider the counter-argument here. When the story started seeping through that Fox was seeking a softer rating for its next Alien film, for instance, one of the justifications cited was that, if you took a bit of the swearing out, there’s no reason why the original film wouldn’t earn a PG-13 rating today.

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Furthermore, you have to concede that PG-13 does allow quite a lot of scope. The Dark Knight was a dark and violent film in places, and that picked up a PG-13 rating. As did Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End, despite the hanging scene at the start. Furthermore, movies such as Daredevil, Valkyrie and The Sum Of All Fears each picked up PG-13, and contained content not necessarily what you’d stick a youngster in front of.

The PG-13 classification clearly offers some wiggle room. According to the MPAA, “A PG-13 motion picture may go beyond the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, adult activities or other elements, but does not reach the restricted R category. The theme of the motion picture by itself will not result in a rating greater than PG-13, although depictions of activities related to a mature theme may result in a restricted rating for the motion picture.”

Also, any drug use, or utterance of the word ‘fuck’, will straight away get you at least a PG-13. Two fucks, and you get an R. If said word is used in a sexual content, then you get an R, too.

Yet let’s not ignore the elephant in the room. The PG-13 category is very much a commercial one. It’s where Hollywood can best capture a broad audience (just look at Avatar‘s box office numbers!), while sometimes going darker, more violent, and a little bit more sexual. And it can do so if it has a PG-13 rating, and not get hit by the box office impact of an R. Because the numbers don’t lie: if you want as much money at the box office as possible, then a PG or PG-13 rating in the States is generally the one to aim for. It can make tens of millions of dollars of difference in extreme cases, possibly more.

The problem, though, is that Hollywood knows this only too well. And the issue that many of us have with softer ratings for the new Alien and Hellraiser movies is whether the content of said films is compromised or reigned-in to get a PG-13 rating.

I’ve got not-fond memories of John McClane’s signature line in the fourth Die Hard movie, for instance, being muffled by a gunshot, presumably to ensure that the PG-13 rating was in the bag. And Fox was rewarded with the biggest box office take for a Die Hard movie to date at the end of it all. That’s a lesson that other studios will have certainly heeded. Heck, even the last Terminator film ended up as a PG-13. Who would have ever thought that?

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With the Alien prequel, the PG-13 rating may, as has been pointed out, not be as poisonous to the end product as could be feared (it’d be interesting to see just what classification Alien would get under today’s more relaxed rules). There is scope for fear, peril and horror under MPAA guidelines. However, what’s likely to be scaled back is the level of violence, and the language.

Is that going to be calamitous for a new Alien film? Probably not, but it might just nip at its edges a bit (and, tonally, there has to be a concern too), and that’s where the level of concern arises.

Hellraiser, you’d have to say, is a different case altogether. I’ve sat through the first movie several times, and the thought of what would have to be done to it in order to have it appeal to the teen audience is a scary one. You can only assume that the Weinsteins just want the Pinhead character, rather than the tone and surroundings of the films he found himself in.

The instant assumption is that, when a film is pitched for a PG-13 rating, compromises will be made. That the level of violence and gore will come down, and that the ‘adult’ edges of a movie will suffer. As it happens, it’s sex that gets cut back the most.

One of the great ironies of the rating systems, and this isn’t exclusive to America, is that it’s remarkably tolerant of all sorts of violence, but a softer act of two human beings making love to one another is far likely to get you a tougher rating. Always an odd one, that.

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Yet, with all this in mind, are we right to be fearful of harder-edged or more adult-themed films being packaged in a PG-13-friendly end result? I’d argue yes and no.

Personally, I don’t see that PG-13 is the end of the world (certainly when we’re in an era when the unrated version of movies tends to end up on DVD), and there’s a lot of more mature material you can explore within the guidelines of that rating. Where I’m fearful is when PG-13 is being pushed for, though, when it’s simply not appropriate for the material. That the rating is conditional on these projects before a frame of footage has been shot, or before a final script has been locked. It’s understandable with a summer blockbuster, where the widest possible audience is required.

But a horror movie? With its wings potentially clipped before it starts? That can’t be good, can it? A compulsory PG-13 surely serves the bean counters, and absolutely nobody else.

Ultimately, the best and worst of PG-13 is arguably encapsulated in the aforementioned fourth Die Hard movie. For I was still surprised how much Fox was able to push into the final cut of the film, and the lack of blood spilling everywhere wasn’t a massive problem (violent films, if they show little actual blood and gore, are generally a shoo-in for PG-13 now). It was still a solid action flick. And yet, it’s also got that also-aforementioned scene that shows the problems, where John McClane isn’t allowed to utter a good, old fashioned “motherfucker” without some degree of censorship.

And it led me to this conclusion: no, we shouldn’t be afraid of the PG-13 rating, and shouldn’t instantly fear the fact that an interesting project is targeted it. What we should be afraid of are the lengths that movie executives will go to get such a rating, and what they’re willing to do to a film to get it.

Because, from where I’m sitting right now, that Hellraiser movie sounds like a terrible idea…

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