Recent news hit that Terminator Genisys would be given a PG-13 rating. This isn’t exactly surprising, since Terminator Salvation was PG-13 as well, despite the first three Terminator films all being rated R. When similar news emerged that Expendables 2 would be given a PG-13 rating, even though it eventually earned an R rating, fans were livid at first, but even with an R-rating, theatrical actioners aren’t really that violent anymore.
While theatrical horror films still seem to push the envelope for gore content, nothing really throws extreme violence at the theater-going action fan without a wink and a nod these days. Verhoeven gave us sand dollar-sized squibs, smashed noses, and removed limbs without much of a thought in the 1990 Total Recall. To do something like that in a theatrical film today, they’d need a cutaway of the hero doing something like this
just to convince the audience that the filmmakers realize that even that was a bit much. Colin Farrell simply wouldn’t take things that far in the latest Total Recall. And they cut all the laughs. Colin Farrell is a funny guy, probably funnier than Arnold, but Total Recall (2012) is too social a message to be funny. Perhaps part of the growing pains of this generation is figuring out how to entertain people in a dark room, and we’ve decided for now that laughing at fun, socially unaware violence is bad.
What complicates the matter is that kids can view violent content on YouTube and Netflix that puts theatrical violence to shame. The level of violence in the Dark Knight prequel series Gotham are far and beyond anything seen in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and there’s no restriction on children of any age seeing this show, save for Netflix’s laughable age restriction settings. Other shows like Hannibal, Breaking Bad, and Walking Dead push violence in ways that we just don’t see in even R-rated theatrical releases anymore, or ever saw for that matter. The “fungus” episode of Hannibal for example is a litmus test of whether you can endure Faces of Death levels of violence in your TV dramas.
The MPAA seems to have no real jurisdiction anywhere except the theater, and they get to slap the rating on DVD boxes, but even then the R-rating doesn’t amount to anything. When I was a boy, they checked your ID. Now they just check your rewards card. The home video markets have declared open season on violence for all ages, but it’s not the entertaining “good guy blows up bad guy’s head” kind of violence. It’s violence aimed to teach you a lesson about why violence is bad. We live in a time when filmmakers indulge in gory fantasies behind the cameras but claim their artistic endeavors were done in the service of anti-violence. Their claim is true – gore is not the same as violence.
The theater, then, is probably the last bastion of family-friendly entertainment where families can rest easy knowing the violence content won’t reach Gotham levels, while producers have self-censored the fun violence content so as not to aggravate the mass media. Colin Farrell can’t cut someone’s arms off and yell, “See you at the pah-tee, Richtaa!” but he can rip his own palm open with a tin can and pull a circuit board out with Surgery TV-levels of gory realism. R-rated theatrical actioners will have to be more like Taken – socially aware, but not resting on the “fun” factor. The catharsis of violence is then diminished, and there’s no turning the clock back. Fun theatrical films must be either non-violent or self-aware. So The Terminator franchise becomes PG-13.
(Sometimes counter-examples slip through the cracks. The Guest does fun violence with perfection, but good luck finding it in theaters. Dredd was a pleasant surprise too in it’s pure fun factor and innovative take on violence, which is probably due to the unique background of the producer, so we’ll see what happens when it becomes a web series.)