What Happened to R Rated Blockbusters?

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Despite looking like this Fourth of July weekend’s preordained box office victor, Terminator Genisys was beaten out by reining champs Jurassic World and Inside Out domestically. It isn’t a huge shocker that Genisys underperformed as critical reception and word-of-mouth were beyond reprehensible. There’s a laundry list of reasons to despise the latest Terminator: The fact that the plot makes no sense, the fact that John Connor is turned into a villain, the fact that the T-3000 looks like Ultron’s scrap metal brother, etc.

There’s one particular miscalculation people have mostly overlooked, however: The fact that this Terminator is rated PG-13! Granted, the rating is an afterthought compared to the film’s poor story, action and dialog. By toning down the violence, profanity and nudity, though, the filmmakers are basically shooting themselves in the foot right off the bat.

This isn’t the first time that a Terminator movie has been neutered by a PG-13 rating. 2009’s Terminator Salvation didn’t go for the R rating and it suffered greatly as a result. Come to think of it, we’ve been getting a ton of sequels, remakes and reboots of classic 80’s action films that have taken a step backwards into PG-13 fare. The new Total Recall and RoboCop both felt like lame, tamed knockoffs of their predecessors as if they’d been censored for basic cable. The only 80’s throwback that’s gotten by with a PG-13 rating is the enjoyable Live Free or Die Hard. If you had to choose between owning that film’s theatrical cut or unrated version, however, chances are you’d want the one where John McClane says, “Yipee-ki-yay, motherf%&@*r!”

To an extent, it makes sense that Hollywood would prefer action movies play if safe with PG-13. In addition to making room for a wider audience, the world has significantly changed since the 80’s when hard R entertainment was marketed to children through toy and cartoon tie-ins. All of the recent school shootings and terrorist attacks have made more people analyze how violence is depicted in the media. It’s easy to point the finger at Hollywood and put some of the blame on them. Wanting to distance themselves from any potential controversy, of course the studio is going to take less risks than they did thirty years ago. Plus, it’s not like having an R rating is going to automatically make a film work. A Good Day to Die Hard is proof of that.

On the other hand, audiences are violent dinosaurs that crave bombastic carnage! It’s up for debate whether packing a film with more violence and f-bombs makes it more adult or childish. All we know for sure is that audiences go to a Terminator, RoboCop and Total Recall movie expecting R rated action. Imagine how disappointing it would be if you bought a subscription to HBO with all the risque scenes cut out or if you couldn’t gamble in Las Vegas. Remember how the fatalities were made more family friendly for the Super Nintendo port of Mortal Kombat where the Sega Genesis port had all the bloodshed one could desire? Which version do you think kids wanted to play? Speaking of which, why was the 1995 film adaptation of Mortal Kombat only rated PG-13?

You get the idea. The R rated action blockbuster is virtually dead. There are arguably a few R action movies still out there. The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone’s love letter to 80’s action flicks, stayed true to its roots and merited an R rating. By the time we got to last year’s The Expendables 3, though, even Stallone succumbed to the PG-13 rating. All of your favorite action stars just aren’t as much fun with a limited arsenal.

Well what about American Sniper? It managed to become the biggest domestic release of 2014 despite its R rating. American Sniper was really more of a drama than a conventional action movie, however. The notion that the film is based on a real life person, makes commentary on current issues and was directed by Clint Eastwood also made the studio more open to its R rating. On top of that, American Sniper was probably viewed as more of an awards darling than a monster box office hit.

One of the only contemporary action blockbusters that’s gone all out with an R-rating is Mad Max: Fury Road, which offered just the right level of violence, gore, nudity and profanity without becoming gratuitous. We can also always expect something gleefully bloody from Quentin Tarantino, who’s become as mainstream as ever with Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds. Unless you have somebody like Tarantino backing a big budget action extravaganza, however, the studios are unlikely to take a chance on an R rating.

If Genisys has taught us anything, it’s that movies like the original Terminator and T2 wouldn’t be the same if they were made in today’s politically correct world. Granted, being politically correct is far from a bad thing as people are gradually becoming more accepting and peaceful. There’s a balance to everything, though, including political correctness. When it comes to action blockbusters, Hollywood has become too PC for its own good.

A word of advice to the people behind Genisys: Go for the R rating if a sixth Terminator is still in the cards. Oh, and a better script wouldn’t hurt either.

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About Nick Spake

Nick Spake has been working as an entertainment writer for the past ten years, but he's been a lover of film ever since seeing the opening sequence of The Lion King. Movies are more than just escapism to Nick, they're a crucial part of our society that shape who we are. He now serves as the Features Editor at Flickreel and author of its regular column, 'Nick Flicks'.

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