Recently, I watched The Golden Compass and later discovered it was rated PG-13. This surprised me, not just because it's a children's movie, but also because it had very little violence in it and no other objectionable content. I had to wrack my brains to figure out how it had gotten so high a rating, and finally I remembered a scene in which a CGI bear rips the jaw off another CGI bear--though it happens so quickly I bet many people won't understand what they just saw. The film is considerably less violent than any of the first three Harry Potter movies, all of which received PG ratings.
Last week, I saw Live Free or Die Hard on DVD, and I had a choice whether to watch the theatrical PG-13 version, or an unrated version with extra content. I opted for the PG-13 version due to my superstitious belief that anything not shown in the theater isn't part of the "real" movie.
Still, just hearing it had a PG-13 was a red flag for me, since the other Die Hard films all have R ratings. Not surprisingly, this is the first Die Hard movie I haven't liked at all. While the film had several other problems, I suspect it's hard to make a good film with the MPAA breathing down your back.
Evidently, they made the film with R level of content, then shaved off just enough material to get a PG-13. These sorts of deals between the studio and the MPAA are basically acts of bargaining rather than the application of consistent standards. The final version is as violent as many R-rated films I have seen, with several moments in which characters get shot and blood spurts from their wounds.
We've reached an absurd situation when The Golden Compass has the same rating as Live Free or Die Hard. Somewhere along the line, after theaters began tightening their standards, studios decided that PG-13 was the most bankable rating, and pretty soon all sorts of movies were being shoved into it, artistic integrity be damned.
I have a couple of suggestions. First, stop allowing filmmakers to bargain down the ratings they receive. Second, get rid of ratings that make no difference to theaters. As far as theaters are concerned, only three categories really matter: movies that anyone may be admitted to see, movies that people under 17 may be admitted to see with a guardian, and movies that people under 17 may not be admitted to see. The G, PG, and PG-13 all fall in the first category. Their only purpose is informative, but that role has practically been rendered obsolete by sites like Screen It!, which provides parents with detailed information about the content in every film. If the MPAA wants the standards enforced, maybe they should leave the job of guidance and recommendation to other sources, which tend to be far better at it, anyway.