Return of the R Rating

By Tom Holste

Oct. 15, 2015

THE HOBBIT may be the first adaptation where it takes longer to watch the movies than it does to read the book.

THE HOBBIT may be the first adaptation where it takes longer to watch the movies than it does to read the book.

On Wednesday, Warner Bros. released an extended cut of The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies to theaters, with a video release soon to follow.  The studio promises an additional 20 minutes added to Peter Jackson’s final installment in his Hobbit trilogy.

Having an extended edition is nothing new for Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies. What makes this release unique, though, is that it’s the first and only installment to receive an R rating from the MPAA.

It will be interesting to see if the extended cut improves the final film in the eyes of the moviegoing public. Five Armies has a 7.5 rating out of 10 based on voters’ rankings on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). A 7.5 is a respectable rating, but it’s by far the lowest-ranked out of all of Jackson’s films based on the books. Notably, the highest-ranked installment is Return of the King, the previous “final” installment in the film franchise. While fans thought that the franchise originally went out on top, they now feel that its final film is the least impressive. Perhaps the added footage will change that.

One might reasonably ask (I certainly have) if an extended cut is really necessary for one book already stretched out over three movies. At 2 hours and 24 minutes, Five Armies is the shortest of the films so far. The 20 extra minutes will push the film closer to the on-average 3-hour mark of the other films. Still, it’s worth keeping an open mind to see if the new footage adds anything of value.

If the new version of the movie is well-received, it could be a further indication of a trend in moviegoing that suggests that audiences are more likely to embrace R-rated action movies in the theaters again.

The MPAA created the ratings system in 1968, and during the 1970s and 1980s, R-rated movies frequently were the highest-grossing movie of the year. From The Godfather to Rain Man, from Blazing Saddles to Beverly Hills Cop, R movies often ruled the roost. But with the introduction of the PG-13 rating in 1984, R-rated movies became big hits less and less often. Action movies became increasingly centered around comic books, video games and toys, which attracted kids, while the PG-13 rating assured parents and older siblings that they weren’t going to be forced to watch an overly cutesy kids’ film that’s more common with a PG or G rating. In other words, studios had found a way to have their popcorn and eat it too.

Before last year, the last time an R-rated film was #1 for the year at the box office was in 1998 (for Saving Private Ryan). (More on last year in a couple of paragraphs.)

It would be grossly inaccurate to say that no R-rated movie has been popular in the intervening years. In particular, comedies seem to be skewing away from the PG-13 rating as more of them find success again with the restrictive rating. And the Oscars often honor dramatic films (usually biographies) that have an R rating. (Indeed, the awards trend has been the reverse of the box office trend. The last time a PG-rated movie won Best Picture was when Driving Miss Daisy won in 1989.) Still, PG-13 or lower-rated movies tend to dominate the most. As recently as 2010, the G-rated Toy Story 3 topped the box office for the year.

But then in 2014, the R-rated American Sniper had the biggest box office. It’s perhaps not entirely surprising, as the film was based on a best-selling book, and like Saving Private Ryan before it, the movie appeared to honor American soldiers, which resonated with a huge portion of our nation’s population that’s still deeply patriotic. (Whether or not the films are actually patriotic is a complicated question, one that I don’t have the answer to, and one that’s beyond the scope of this article anyway.) Still, for the film to be so successful was a little unusual for this day and age.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD wouldn't be an unusual success story for 1985, but it's pretty unusual for 2015.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD wouldn’t be an unusual success story for 1985, but it’s pretty unusual for 2015.

Then came Mad Max: Fury Road. A sequel that came 20 years after the last installment, with a recast lead, didn’t seem like it was destined to be widely accepted. Even having the original films’ writer/director, George Miller, back at the helm, didn’t guarantee acclaim. (Just ask George Lucas.) But fans and critics thoroughly embraced the film. The movie has an 8.3 out of 10 rating on IMDB, a staggering 97% positive out of 100 rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 89% rating on Metacritic. It’s not the highest-grossing film of the year – it ranks at a modest but still successful #15 – but this level of acclaim for a sequel so many years after the original film is practically unheard of.

The makers of the Die Hard, Terminator and Alien franchises have not been so lucky. When Bruce Willis returned to the previously R-rated film series with the PG-13 rated Live Free or Die Hard in 2007, critics and fans mostly rejected it. Many were frustrated that even John McClane (Willis)’s character’s famous expression from the movies – “Yippie-ki-yay, mother…” – got deliberately obscured by a gunshot. While I actually found the movie kind of fun, I couldn’t deny that a friend of mine had a point when he asked why the studio (Fox) felt the need to make a John McClane movie for kids in the first place. Similarly, audiences turned their noses up at the PG-13 rated Alien vs. Predator and Terminator Salvation. (To be fair, Alien vs. Predator did make a lot of money, but it was widely reviled.)

Here’s the thing, though: The R-rated follow-ups didn’t save the franchise. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem was even less well-liked than the previous entry, and the sort-of prequel Prometheus (with the original director, Ridley Scott) got a middling reception. (It’s getting a sequel, but the studio – Fox again – almost went in a completely different direction for the next film.) Meanwhile, A Good Day to Die Hard (a film with a title that seems to have been written by a Klingon from Star Trek) is widely considered to be the worst in the series, and likely the final nail in that franchise’s coffin. So when Mad Max: Fury Road debuts to near-universal acclaim, one has to note how very unusual that is.

(The producers of Terminator Genisys announced their original intention to get an R rating for the movie, but the final film ended up getting a PG-13 anyway. Whether the rating was a factor or not, Genisys failed to bring audiences back into the fold.)

With stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and even Dolph Lundgren, the only thing missing from EXPENDABLES was a VHS release.

With stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and even Dolph Lundgren, the only thing missing from EXPENDABLES was a VHS release.

In fact, a big part of the appeal for the fans of the recent Expendables film series starring Sylvester Stallone is that it feels like a total throwback to the R-rated action movies of the ‘80s. Interestingly, the PG-13 rated Expendables 3 made significantly less money than its predecessors. Ditto for PG-13 reboots of Robocop and Total Recall.

Going back to The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies – Since the original novel The Hobbit actually skews toward a younger audience than The Lord of the Rings, it’s actually amusing that any film based on it would get an R rating. However, the MPAA says that the rating is for violence, a mainstay of these movies, so it’s good to know that Peter Jackson didn’t feel the need to add sex and profanity into a series for which such things would be an odd fit.

At any rate, I certainly have to wonder if Jackson and company would have even considered releasing a retooled Five Armies with an R rating without recent success stories like American Sniper and Fury Road. If the new version greatly improves fans’ perception of the film, look for the trend of more R-rated movies to continue. (In fact, the trailers alone for next year’s comic book-based Deadpool and Suicide Squad look like they’ll almost have to accept an R rating.)

Is this trend good thing or bad? I don’t know. It’s too early to say. While many conservatives like myself have seen films that we thought had gratuitous sex, language or violence, most of us would also say that the use of the rating for such films as Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and The Passion of the Christ was valid and worthwile, as they depicted real-life violent historical events in an unflinching manner. Big-budget popcorn movies don’t really fall into that category, but since some PG-13 movies marketed to kids push the upper level of that rating, it might be useful to parents if some blockbusters had a more informative, restrictive rating.

On the other hand, the notion that only adults watch R-rated movies is largely just a myth. Even 30 years ago, while attending a private Christian grade school, I would be regaled with the plots of slasher movies by my classmates during recess, movies which they had apparently seen the night before on HBO. (To be fair, none of them went on to be serial killers themselves, at least as far as I’m aware.) I’m not saying that all entertainment needs to be exclusively suitable to little children. In fact, I don’t know what all the answers are. I’m just offering what I’ve observed, for whatever it’s worth.

At any rate, time will tell if the recent success of a few R-rated action films will be just a blip in the popular culture or a continuing trend. For the last 20 years or so, the PG-13 rating has been insurance for film studios to guarantee a return on their investment. But the pendulum may be swinging back the other way.

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