Open the paper or switch on the news on any given day and it will almost certainly feature violence. Whether from continuing conflicts around the world or the mistreatment of the elderly in care homes, violence has inextricably been a part of mankind’s collective history. Naturally, this aspect of life has been, and continues to be, represented in various forms of art; with the widely-consumed medium of film offering audiences a moving depiction of such acts. While regulated by the long-established and accepted process of film rating and certification, discrepancies abound when navigating guidelines on violence though – specifically in films where violence is the central action – but perhaps most notably when contrasting human violence against non-human violence on the big screen.
Acknowledging flexible public attitudes toward such acts and their presentation, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) tasks itself with determining whether, “… the violence in any given work is acceptable for the audience at which the work as a whole is aimed.” In doing so, a long list of questions is asked of the relevant action. These range from considering the context of the violence, how it is cinematically stylised, who is carrying out the violence and how the audience is led to respond to what they are being shown, in addition to many others. There is, however, nothing stating a difference in how this should be interpreted between humans, animals or even aliens. While on the surface this would appear something irrespective of consideration, there does seem to exist a hierarchy between these species. Unsurprisingly, humans are at the top of this hierarchy; and much like any other hierarchy, its structure is indebted to division. Ultimately, it is through this accentuation of difference, whereby the familiarity of an aggressor’s species dictates their potential for violence.
Realised specifically by the dehumanisation of the recipient of violence, the usual culpability towards such acts of aggression is removed. This itself stems from a question of empathy and understanding. The more foreign and alien something is, the harder it is to morally or ethically register the pain it receives… apparently. In the case of the 12A-rated Rampage (2018) – a film in which a large spike-shooting, flying wolf and a 60ft, horned crocodile run amok in downtown Chicago – the mutations its two antagonists are subject to seemingly justifies their respective decapitation and eye-skewering at the film’s conclusion. Crucially, the film’s gorilla on the other hand, after being previously introduced showcasing human communication and understanding, only has its size and strength altered before being cured of the pathogen that had caused each of the animal’s mutations. With either the loss or the retainment of individual familial qualities in each respective animal exhibited, the distinction between good and evil is made to the audience, thereby seemingly justifying the level of violence they endure.
While the difference in treatment of its non-human characters can easily be attributed to the level of character development offered to them, should this lack of screen time extended to the wolf and crocodile in Rampage forego our basic principles of compassion? After all, all three animals are subject to the same inadvertent exposure to the mutating pathogen in the film, meaning all three are victims. Yet it is the respective human ability and inability in saving George the gorilla over the wolf and crocodile that apparently seals their fates.
Narrative circumstance aside however, higher age ratings do appear to only befall films with detailed human suffering. Starship Troopers (1997) for example carries the 18-rating certificate; a film about a bloody intergalactic war between human beings and an insectoid alien species known as the Arachnids. Throughout the film, human soldiers are shown bisected, gored and ravaged, with the mutilation of these soldiers routinely presented with human blood decorating the landscapes of alien worlds. But while the carnage and loss befalling the soldiers of mankind is staged in empathetic ways, the same cannot be said for the violence endured by the Arachnids.
Including a practice utilised in wartime propaganda in which differences between warring factions is emphasised as a way of legitimising conflict, the film employs the use of short “interactive” infomercials from the biased perspective of humankind, detailing various aspects of the ongoing conflict against the Arachnids as a way of disavowing sympathy for the enemy. Subsequently, the violence the Arachnids endure – of which gratuitous violence is not uncommon – is presented as not only justified but acceptable.
In comparison however, while adhering to BBFC guidelines in attaining its 12A rating for not dwelling on detail, the violence displayed throughout Rampage is instead divided by the certification authority into two distinct realms: fantastical and realistic. Although the actuality of the film’s premise is undeniably an unlikely scenario, it is interesting to note that only human-on-human violence is defined as realistic violence in the film. Despite the mutations each animal is subject to partially obscuring their familiarity, on a base level they are still the same creatures we share our planet with; while the violence they both inflict and endure adheres to the same physics of violence we as human beings understand and are familiar with. Arguably then, any violent act is intelligible and thereby imitable regardless of what species the violence is befalling – real or imagined.
It is the suffering of human beings, however, that tends to routinely outweigh that of other species – as Rico (Casper Van Dien) and Carmen (Denise Richards) are told during a biology class in Starship Troopers, “we humans like to think we’re nature’s greatest achievement…”. It’s a conceited statement, but one that our regulation of interspecies violence tends to agree with. What is lost, though, by subscribing to this notion of difference between human and non-human violence is consistency. Without this, contradictory messages are then imparted onto audiences – messages that commonly appear to transcend the age divisions imposed by film certification. Considered when such a process is trusted to regulate the images seen by children and teenagers under societal codes of morals and ethics, answers are left wanting about how such inconsistencies remain unconsidered.