The Force Awakens is rated PG-13 for “Sci-fi action violence.” What does that imply, and should we care?
For better or worse, the MPAA has held moderate control over the box-office through the ratings they assign. Not long after its inception, the PG-13 rating became the most popular for wide audiences, the common favorite for summer blockbusters. The shift struck a blow against films with an R or PG rating, as PG-13 expanded in both directions to include more (or less) graphic material in an attempt to garner the largest possible box-office through its rating.
Gone are the days when an R-rated film like Terminator could succeed at the box office. Gone are the days when a film like Ben-Hur could be rated G despite some comparatively graphic content. MPAA ratings have fluctuated strongly in the last few years, but their current parameters carry a lot of baggage. Generally speaking, G is for babies, PG is for children, R is for niche audiences, and PG-13 is for everyone else.
This week it was revealed that Star Wars: The Force Awakens rating would be PG-13. The move stirred a small controversy among some fans, due to the ratings of previous Star Wars films, most of which were rated PG. Ratings are not something that happen on a whim. Most studios specifically target the rating they want, and will add/remove graphic content to achieve that rating (Interstellar, for example, added a single f-bomb to get their PG-13 rating). So why did Lucasfilm decide on PG-13 as their target rating?
What Would the MPAA Rate the Original Star Wars Films Today?
First of all, we should look at the situation from the MPAA’s point of view, since a PG-13 film is very different from what it used to be. To start, look at the original films and determine what they would be rated in today’s context to see how The Force Awakens compares. Remember the PG-13 rating was not introduced until 1984, after all 3 original Star Wars films had been released. So even if the originals deserved a PG-13 rating, they couldn’t have had it anyway.
- A New Hope: The first original film was tame overall. It narrowly avoided a G rating due to one bloody dismemberment, two swear words, and two burning corpses (something many would argue might merit a PG-13 rating today). But overall, a tame film.
- The Empire Strikes Back: Easily the darkest of the originals, Episode V has another dismemberment, depictions of torture, and multiple disturbing images. Dark, thematic scenes can increase the rating of a film, and this film was full of them. The Battle of Hoth also has a rather high body count.
- Return of the Jedi: Another rather tame film, full of cute teddy bears and mild violence. But there’s also a disgusting slug, an extremely creepy Emperor, and of course, Princess Leia in her metal bikini. It might not be enough to earn a PG-13 rating, but at the same time, try imagining a recent PG movie (like Big Hero 6 or Earth to Echo) with a woman in a slave bikini outfit today. At the very least, parents would be outraged.
- The Phantom Menace: Episode 1 probably fits the PG rating best of the series, with only Darth Maul’s terrifying visage and the (non-explicit) death of Qui-Gon Jinn. It probably deserved the PG rating more than any.
- Attack of the Clones: This film is likely the most violent PG film in existence since the introduction of the PG-13 rating. How this film avoided a PG-13 rating is hard to say. More dismemberment, an extremely high body count, mild sexualization of the female lead, headbutts, decapitations, and more all contribute to a film that would probably earn a PG-13 rating today.
- Revenge of the Sith: Of course, Episode III is the only Star Wars film to earn a PG-13 rating until now, but understandably so, considering the film depicts the extermination of the Jedi and an order of crispy Anakin with limbs on the side. Yet, Revenge of the Sith is still considered a soft PG-13, but still likely more graphic than The Force Awakens will be.
Overall, the ratings have changed a lot over the last 30 years, and it’s hard to gage whether or not the Star Wars films would maintain their ratings today. In all likelihood, The Force Awakens’ content won’t be that extreme when compared to the previous films.
Who Is Lucasfilm Targeting?
Again, studios tend to target a PG-13 rating for marketing reasons. Today, the PG rating is commonly associated with children. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the original Star Wars film was also meant for kids, and it got lucky by appealing to the whole family and therefore earning a large box office. But today there is a social stigma against PG films that implies that they are not just for children, but are also childish. There’s a general attitude that PG films are not meant for adults. For this reason, PG-13 films have naturally wider audiences, one reason why studios frequently target that rating.
Scott Mendelson over at Forbes argued that The Force Awakens should still be PG, regardless of the implications. It would send a message that PG films can have fun for the whole family, like Goonies, or E.T. Sadly, it looks like Disney is playing it safe. They know that a PG-13 Star Wars film will likely make more money, therefore it’s in their best interest to rate it PG-13.
Disney/Lucasfilm have also shown that they’re trying hard to market to original fans instead of the younger generation. Many early fans were turned off by the – shall we say – less than ideal reception to the prequel films. In the SDCC behind-the-scenes look at the film, creators emphasized the practical effects of the film, the lack of which is often mistakenly used to criticise the prequel films. In short, Lucasfilm is targeting the larger audience for The Force Awakens, namely the many fans who have grown up with Star Wars in their life. A PG-13 rating only cements that target marketing. Of course, Disney and Lucasfilm are still targeting children with their content, but they do it through other means, such as the animated Star Wars Rebels show on Disney XD.
What Type of Graphic Content Will We See in The Force Awakens?
Well, it’s hard to say exactly what The Force Awakens will bring, and whether you should take your younger kids to see it. According to the MPAA, The Force Awakens rating is based on “Sci-fi action violence.” In comparison, Revenge of the Sith was rated PG-13 for “Sci-fi violence and some intense images,” so The Force Awakens will likely be less graphic than Revenge of the Sith. Attack of the Clones might be the best comparison of what The Force Awakens rating might equal.
But in the end, PG-13 means that the film recommends parental guidance for children under 13. There are plenty of PG-13 films that are widely considered safe for the family, such as The Avengers or Jurassic World (though some parents would disagree, and that’s fine). Your best option is to go see the film, then decide if it’s appropriate for your children. In the end, you’re in charge of what they do or don’t see.