I spent so much time at the movies as a kid, the ushers should have collected a babysitting allowance from my parents.
At the old Loew’s Westchester Twin Theater, I saw countless classics — and many others that most certainly were not classics — in the late 70s and early 80s. Those regular visits the movies at such a young with my older brother and our friends helped shape my taste in cinema.
“Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Superman: The Movie,” “The Black Hole” (I told you, not all were classics), “Clash of the Titans,” “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” “Tron,” “Flash Gordon.” I could go on and on. Aside from the obvious Geek Genre bonafides these films have, something else they all share are two letters. PG.
Each of those films was rated PG by the MPAA when it was first released. As a six or seven year-old kid, my imagination was sparked by some of the wild visual language I saw unspool on those massive screens. It would be years before I fully understood the entire message Spielberg wanted to convey in “Close Encounters,” but damned if the beautiful imagery of those flying ships and the melodic alien hooks didn’t mesmerize me.
Even “Star Trek: TMP,” which for a nine year-old kid was like being forced to spend the weekend watching paint dry while doing your homework and eating green vegetables, served a purpose. It showed me that science fiction wasn’t just about men and women of action, fighting evil men in dark suits. It could also be about grown-up ideas, and contemplation.
The vast potential for storytelling within its parameters is why I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy. My two daughters are too young to be exposed to sci-fi at anything more than an animated series level (hello, “Miles From Tomorrowland“) right now. But that is high on my agenda as a parent. The problem is, the current state of moviemaking is going to make it very hard for me to give them a taste of the sci-fi awesomesauce until they’re much older than I was when I first got wowed.
It highlighted all kinds of wonderful and random science fiction films that happened to be rated G. For example, I had forgotten that the original “Planet of the Apes” movie was rated G. That’s absolutely flabbergasting, considering the themes and imagery in that movie, not to mention the fact we see Charlton Heston’s bare behind in the film. But it was 1968, a different time. The G rating meant something else to a profoundly different generation.
Now, a G rating is reserved for the tamest of films. Usually animated lowest common denominator entertainment, with no biting humor or subversive themes buried beneath childish plotlines. And that’s fine. I see G rated films as a cinema safety zone for kids seven and under to learn to get used to the theatergoing experience. It serves a purpose.
But where are all the PG-rated genre movies? This is the key age bracket to create the Next Gen of movie-loving obsessives. And it’s not like the studios aren’t making these types of movies. There are more science fiction/horror/fantasy films being made now than ever before. They’re just not being made for younger fans all that much.
We are in the true Golden Age for Geek Film.
But aside from animated movies, the first three Harry Potter pictures, the Percy Jackson movies, and two Tim Burton films that made boatloads of cash but have few actual fans — “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Alice in Wonderland” — There haven’t been all many notable PG-rated genre movies released in the last 15 years. And the last two I mentioned are basically live-action cartoons.
(I’m sure I’ve overlooked some, so please correct me in the comments.)
As for true science fiction, we did get Brad Bird’s PG-rated “Tomorrowland” last year. That was a movie steeped in all the great ambitions of the genre, with a fabulous idea at its heart, and I couldn’t wait to see it. Sadly, it came apart a bit in the third act. But at least Disney made the attempt at not only an original sci-fi idea, but a family-friendly one.
“Tomorrowland” is a movie I hope connects with audiences as time goes by, because it has so much going for it: genius concept, strong, interesting young female hero, and some gorgeous retro-futurist imagery.
Unfortunately, it failed at the box office, which I fear won’t help the movement for more PG-rated science fiction.
The PG rating has an image problem. It’s inherently ‘square’ and nowhere near as cool as its edgy older brother, PG-13. Also, the PG-13 rating is that sweet spot for box office earnings where you can hook the parents and the teenagers to buy tix to see “Captain America: Civil War.” I understand that. I also know that 25-30 years ago, kids under 12 years of age didn’t have the multitude of entertainment options they have now. But that doesn’t mean they’re not starving for something fresh, something fantastic.
Look no further than Jon Favreau’s wildly successful “The Jungle Book” remake. Since its release earlier this year, it’s earned nearly a billion dollars and great critical reviews, all with a PG rating. It’s proof that you can make a live-action adventure for kids that older audiences can also enjoy. But is it an outlier, or a sign of things to come? As parents, we can only hope.
The generation of movie fanatics who used the birth of the Internet to spawn a culture of cinema worshipping is now at the point where it’s time to pay it forward, and pass on our love of genre movies to the next wave. And I’m worried that if I can’t take my girls to see quality science fiction or fantasy movies until they’re 10 or 11, then I may miss my opportunity.
Sure, I could use the classics as the gateway drug. But as much as I want my daughters to love ‘Wrath of Khan’ as much as I do, I want them to discover their own magic, something they can claim as their own.
The question is, will Hollywood give them the chance to do so?