In the 1990s, the MPAA began to release explanations for ratings—first for R-rated films, and then for PG, PG-13, and NC-17 films as well. These help a viewer to distinguish between, for instance, the R ratings for three very different films: the Irish musical Once ("for language"), The Passion of the Christ ("for sequences of graphic violence"), and The Wolf of Wall Street ("for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence"). Recently, "smoking" was added as a factor in these advisories.
So the MPAA ratings are there to help people decide if the film's for them. Someone who might not go see a movie rated PG-13 for "adult themes" might be okay with a PG-13 rated movie that received its rating for "cartoon violence," for instance. Among other things, it's a recognition that one size can't fit all, and it's a way for studios to protect their own interests and avoid lawsuits from unhappy viewers—and censorship from governmental or other sources, something that was a live issue in the early days of cinema. (For more on this—and on the surprisingly influential role that clergy played in putting together and maintaining this system—I highly recommend the excellent history book Reforming Hollywood, by Calvin College professor William Romanowski; I reviewed it in CT a couple years ago.)
R-rated films, then, are a category of films that have content—maybe war violence or graphic violence, maybe sexual content or nudity, maybe difficult or disturbing circumstances that may bother some viewers—that most of us wouldn't introduce to children or teenagers. Many of us would also avoid some of this content in our own lives, for a variety of reasons.
I, for instance, am personally very disturbed by what the MPAA often calls "supernatural" content in films—basically, I can't handle on-screen demons. Even a film like The Exorcism of Emily Rose—a movie made by a Christian filmmaker whom I respect and based on a true story in which an agnostic is pushed toward belief as a result of prosecuting a potentially botched exorcism—scares the, well, hell out of me. When I saw it, I couldn't sleep for a month.
Another instance might be a film that deals truthfully with the difficulty of living through and recovering from an eating disorder or self-harm. Certainly a movie like that could be made thoughtfully, and tastefully, and it might even help viewers to understand a disorder they know nothing about and empathize with sufferers—but it would also receive a higher rating for "adult content," partially because it can act as a trigger for those who may have been through the experience.
Of course, that's all just talking about the MPAA, who rate nearly every film made or released in the United States (excepting some documentaries, smaller independent films with very limited release, and foreign movies). What about the choices we make in Christianity Today? Why do we choose to review R-rated movies—not just ones about demons or disorders, but also movies like The Wolf of Wall Street?
Let's Talk About Criticism
Let's get sidetracked for just a second and talk about criticism itself. Christians historically understand some literary genres well: realistic fictional and factual narratives, journalism (thank you, Luke), testimony and personal essays, allegory, poetry (consider the Psalms), fantasy, and, of course, sermons. We are people of The Book, after all.