Cinema film classifications are essential. We need them. But 12A doesn't work. It encourages studios to dumb-down adult action movies to fit the rating; allows incorrectly classified older films to scare the pants off 10 year olds, and makes 13-year-olds believe that when you shoot someone they don't bleed, scream or writhe in agony, but just fall athletically to the floor and lie still.
Ironically, it was in 1984 that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) introduced the PG-13 film certificate. In the UK we followed suit in 2002 with the 12A certificate. Both ratings basically allow a kid of any age to see that film at the cinema as long as they're accompanied by an adult.
12A dumbs down action movies
Taken 1 is a brilliant action movie. Taken 2 is great. Taken 3 is rubbish. Ever wondered why? Most people don't even notice the certificate of a much-hyped movie - especially if it's part of a franchise. At the cinema, Taken 1 was an 18. Taken 2 was a 15. Taken 3 was edited down to a 12A. This is typical of the downward spiral. Hollywood is spending millions as we speak, editing all the great adult and 15-rated action movies; removing the blood and swearing, and cutting the horror, nudity and sex. They're doing this so that they can get the 'coveted' PG-13/12A rating for all their action, thriller and adventure movies.
The studios need 12A ratings for a reason. Everyone loves a good action movie. It's why the cinema was invented. And it shows in the takings. Of the top 10 grossing movies worldwide in 2014, all were action/ adventure movies. Only one was a straight PG rating - Disney's Maleficent. All the rest were PG-13 /12A. In fact, of the top 20 grossing movies in the US, only three were R rated (under 17s accompanied by an adult; generally a '15' in the UK) - and two of those were comedies; the vast majority were PG-13 action movies.
The upshot of this is that we adults, and those teenagers over the age of 15, are now being sold short. Movies that rely for their impact on swearing and violence are either not being made or are being cut to within an inch of their plot. There's nothing left for us. We're been fed a diet of sanitised, plasticised, over-processed rubbish. And it's thanks to the 12A rating.
12A scares the pants off 10 year olds
At this point, most people will say: 'But what about Jaws? That's a 12A'. Yes. It is. And this is where it gets complicated. Take a look at just this one clip and tell me that if Jaws was released today, with or without a CGI shark, it would be classified anything less than a 15.
Jaws is a classic horror/suspense film, possibly the best ever made. It's an incredibly scary film. And its classification is a reflection of the world in 1975. In those days no one gave any real thought to the psychological effect films might have on younger viewers. As long as there wasn't too much sex, pretty much everything was OK. So on its release in the UK Jaws was an 'A' or 'Advisory' classification. That essentially meant that children aged five and older were admitted to the cinema with an adult, but it was not recommended for children under 14 - so everyone old enough to walk upright unaided saw it. And many people now in their late 40s regret that fact.
Jaws should not be a 12A. It's too psychologically affecting for most under 15s. And it has oceans of blood; something you never see in today's 12A. But what it does have, we can now see, is a very unrealistic shark. And that gives the classification boards an 'out' because, naturally, even a kid can tell the shark's not real, right? Wrong. But because the film classification boards in 1975 messed up spectacularly, and can't admit they got it wrong, we're stuck with a 12A Jaws. This just shows you how ridiculous the rating system really is.
12A makes 13 year olds think people don't bleed
The final problem with 12A ratings is that because we've removed the blood, children think that people die nicely. It encourages them to think of violence as something that's clean and painless - and therefore not so bad. After all, if it doesn't hurt.....
Every time a young person commits an atrocity it's partly blamed on violent computer games. But I don't think I've ever heard anyone cite a constant diet of sanitised Hollywood-style death as a contributing factor. In Hollywood movies the hero often strides around killing people with no accompanying blood, screaming, horror, pain or mess. And this is the impression we're giving to 13 year old cinemagoers. Wouldn't it be more sensible to show death in all its horror but restrict it to older teenagers with the maturity to cope?
But even here there's a mismatch; one that harks back to the Jaws conundrum and is starting to rear its very ugly head. If the studios know the movie is going to be massive, they'll pretty much ignore all their blood and violence issues, do no cutting and apply enough pressure to get the 12A / PG-13 rating regardless. So what we've got is a situation where a child of five can legally watch The Bourne Identity, Jack Reacher, The Dark Knight and The Wolverine, as long as they're with their mum. All these films were a 12A rating at the cinema.
Scrap the 12A - and bring back proper use of the 15 certificate
In my view, the only way to unravel this mess is to agree to a new system. Scrap the idea that a violent film is less violent or psychologically damaging just because you're sitting next to your dad in the cinema, and use 'U' for universal; PG for (genuine) Parental Guidance, 15 for over 15s, and 18 for over 18s. Simple, straightforward and unambiguous. I know this will never happen because the Hollywood studios call the shots and they love PG-13/12A. But if we want to stop the dumbing down, stop scaring our children and stop telling kids killing people doesn't hurt, then we need to try something - and soon.