R-Rated Films: The “R” is for Real
Q: Does an R-rating signify that a film will be inherently better?
A: In short, no, not necessarily, although a lot of people seem to think so.
But where does this assumption come from? I think to answer that it is important to discuss the history of the R-rating, and the draw towards more explicit and/or perverse films.
Tom Gunning’s article “The Cinema of Attractions” is a piece of writing that caused a paradigm shift in cinema studies, with the effects still relevant today. In this famous article, Gunning delves into the origins of cinema and defines the cinema of attraction. According to Gunning, this is the phenomenon in which audiences are drawn to cinema not for the narrative or plot, but rather for the “animation and thrill of the images”, in a form of exhibitionism. Gunning’s discussion mainly applied to the premature modes of film that were produced in the late 19th century/early 20th century, although he does suggest that the cinema of attraction influenced the evolution of filmmaking all the way through more contemporary eras as we know them.
These early exhibitionist films utilized an “energy” that pushed “outward toward an acknowledged spectator rather than inward towards the character-based situations.” In this sense they “suppl[ied] pleasure through an exciting spectacle.” While Gunning makes a distinction between exhibitionism and Christian Metz’s theory of cinematic voyeurism, he is sure to mention the role of the erotic film and its use of exhibitionism, which in that case becomes literal. According to Gunning, erotic films and theaters would contribute significantly to the foundation of early film production. In Metz’s approach to cinema, he mentions concepts behind fetishism and arousal in his discussion of how cinema allows for the viewer to engage in voyeurism by observing on-screen events. According to Metz, the line between filmic reality and actual reality can become blurred. Gunning’s analysis, on the other hand, is hindered on the fact that viewers are acutely aware that what they are watching is fictional and limited to the screen.
So, what does this all mean in the context of modern cinema? Gunning would posit that contemporary films are still examples of cinema of attraction, and that the “story simply provides a frame upon which to string a demonstration of the magical possibilities of the cinema.”
Perhaps films that receive more mature ratings such as R or NC-17 are just presenting those unique instances of cinema of attraction that can’t be found elsewhere. If Metz were still alive, he might suggest that the explicit content that tends to be more common in these films is appealing to a subconscious voyeuristic desire in audiences.
I think the answer lies somewhere in between. The allure of the R-rating seems to be rooted in the desire to see things that can’t be seen elsewhere. Many people have a perception that if a movie earns this rating, it won’t “hold back” or be censored to any degree. At the end of the day, it is seen simply as a more “real” or “true” form of a story. Given a pattern of studio interference in recent years, this is a perception that is not exactly unfounded. By this I am referring to instances in which “a studio compromises a film’s story in order to earn a more marketable rating.”
One recent example would be Suicide Squad (dir. David Ayer, 2016), which was a critical and commercial flop. When director David Ayer hinted at the fact that the film had to be heavily altered to achieve a PG-13 rating, fans began clamoring for the one “true” R-rated version, which many assumed would fix the present issues. But when you have a case like Suicide Squad, in which the problems of the film are legitimately attributed to the lesser rating, a pattern can start to emerge where fans begin applying the same logic to other films, even if the rating remains consistent. The assumption that can emerge is that and R-rating is equivalent to a better movie.
Here’s an example: Terminator Genisys (dir. Alan Taylor, 2015) was a moderate success at the box office, but generally a critical failure, with many reviews questioning the decision to move the series away from the hard-R it was known for in favor of a more widely-appealing PG-13. In response to the negative feedback, the series was once again rebooted four years later with Terminator: Dark Fate (dir. Tim Miller, 2019) with a familiar R-rating. Reviews were similarly negative, so much so that any sequel plans were scrapped, ending this iteration of the franchise.
The Terminator sequels are a perfect case study to observe the ways in which ratings are not intrinsically tied to the quality of a film. In some specific instances, as I discussed, it can be a factor, and the uncertainty and mysteriousness of an R-rating may attract more attention. But, in general, there’s nothing about an R-rating that automatically makes a movie better. I think film writer Christopher Gates put it best when he said: “Toy Story’s Buzz and Woody can bicker just fine without using profanity. In Casablanca, a graphic love scene isn’t necessary to sell Bogart and Bergman’s romance. The little girl from The Ring is terrifying all on her own – no extra blood needed.”
“There’s nothing inherently better about R-rated movies.”
Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction [ s ] : Early Film , Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde.” (2014).