In a surprise move announced this morning, Ridley Scott’s mega-budget sci-fi epic Prometheus has been downgraded from MA to M by the Australian Classification Review Board (ACRB). After being originally granted an MA rating, distributor 20th Century Fox submitted a request for the rating to be reassessed and a five member panel ruled in their favour. This means the film, while recommended for 15+ audiences, will be open for business for viewers of any age.

Here’s a grab from the ACRB’s official press release:

A five-member panel of the Classification Review Board has unanimously determined that the  films Prometheus (2D & 3D) are classified M (Mature) with the consumer advice ‘moderate science fiction violence and a medical procedure’.

The Classification Guidelines provide that the treatment of themes may have a moderate sense of threat or menace if justified by context and moderate violence is permitted if justified by context.  In the Classification Review Board’s opinion Prometheus (2D & 3D) warrants an M classification because the treatment of themes and the depictions of violence in the films are moderate in impact.

The overall impact of the classifiable elements in both versions of Prometheus was no higher than moderate.

I’m not sure what movie the Review Board watched, but the one I saw was unequivocally high impact. I won’t cite any specific examples, due to the heightened allergy to spoilers surrounding the film’s release, but note that there is one scene (the “medical procedure” sequence mentioned in the ACRB’s press release) that had me shifting in my seat and contorting my face, as if I were auditioning for Australia’s Got Indigestion. It’s a terrifyingly well directed moment, horrific in the way of a Cronenberg-esque (and of course, Alien-esque) depiction of human body mutilation. But boy, it’s intense.

By contrast, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) gave Prometheus a 15+ rating, citing “strong violence, gore, threat and horror.” According to the BBFC, it “contains a number of scenes of strong violence that feature heavy blows and bloody detail.”

“This is solely the (Australian) Review Board’s crazy (sic). It highlights the absurdity and inconsistency of their decisions” tweeted one film wag this morning.

Prometheus rating proves the maxim that as long as it’s not red, human, or displaying boobs, anything goes,” scoffed another.

Other reactions included: “Just bizarre! It’s broken arms & melted faces akimbo” and “A confusing decision by Classification Board. Prometheus clearly has at least ONE scene that is MA+ . I wouldn’t rate film as a M.”

An hour or so after the official press release surfaced, the Australian Council for Children and the Media (ACCM) shot back with one of their own. It began:

Prof. Elizabeth Handsley, President of the Australian Council for Children and the Media (ACCM), today cautioned parents about new release movie Prometheus saying ‘the Classification Review Board’s decision to lower the classification from MA15+ to M is questionable in light of the child development-based advice from our reviewer.’

After a more detailed description of the ‘medical procedure’ scene, the release continued:

Professor Handsley continued ‘an M rating gives unrestricted access to the viewing of this film in cinemas, with some anecdotal evidence suggesting that this may mean children as young as 11 years old are being allowed to attend this movie with their peers, without an adult accompanying them.

Because an M rating allows their children to do this, it is not sending a strong enough message to parents about the need many children will have for adult support and supervision. The classification system, in this case, is letting our kids and parents down’.

The logic behind 20th Century Fox resubmitting the (unedited) film for classification review is simple: an M rating means more bums on seats and more dollars in the kitty. From a business point of view, it makes sense. Fox wants as many people to see their film as possible and cannot be held accountable by the standards that regulate our classification system. Opting for the widest possible release is fair game.

The real issue pertains to a lack of consistency. The Prometheus ruling is the latest in a string of embarrassing about-faces that have significantly damaged the credibility of our classification boards and the perceived manner with which films are assessed and rated in Australia.

Last July, the grisly psychosexual thriller A Serbian Film was banned despite being green-lit for release earlier in the year.

Last May, Norwegian director Tom Six’s throat-clogging The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) was granted an R classification, which was revoked in November following campaigning from conservative politicians and lobbying groups. The revoked decision was also revoked when the film’s distributor, Monster Pictures, shaved less than one minute from the running time and The Human Centipede 2 returned to cinemas on a wave of free publicity.

The ability for film distributors to appeal classification board decisions is not in question; if anything, given the mixed messages these recent examples invoke, it is more important now than ever. But the film classification system in Australia is looking increasingly out-dated and its assessors sheepish and fickle. Parents — in fact, all concerned parties, including distributors and exhibitors — would be well advised to take their decisions with a rather large grain of salt.