She’s truly outrageous. She’s an ’80s icon who turned many a little girl (and the occasional boy) into a self-loving example of overcoming obstacles and believing in yourself. Sure, she was just the byproduct of a toy company’s desire to sell dolls, but when Jem and her fellow Holograms hit TV screens around the world, she became more than a product. She ended up a symbol, a show of strength at a time where dreams were still possible and a career as a rock star was the ultimate example of wish fulfillment.
Fast forward a few decades and the live action Jem and the Holograms ditches all that for an Internet-friendly ideal that cribs from YouTube, social media, and — of all things — the found footage genre a la Unfriended. We get more onscreen confessionals and shaky-cam selfie sharing than a collection of Kardashians. This is a movie that clearly wants to connect with millennials as well as the parents who made them. Some of the spark from the animated series is present, but not enough to save this film from its own tired twee tendencies.
Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples) is a struggling singer/songwriter who catches an “only in the movies” break when a video of her performing as an alter ego — Jem — goes viral. It’s all her sister Kimber’s (Stefanie Scott) fault. She recorded the performance and uploaded it to the web. Naturally, there is talk of performing live, so Jerrica rounds up her pals Aja (Hayley Kiyoko), Shana (Aurora Perrineau), and Kimber and together they hit the stage. With the help of Starlight Music executive Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) their career takes off. Then Jerrica/Jem finds Synergy, a robot her father invented. Its purpose? To send the girls on a scavenger hunt. No, seriously. There’s also some man candy thrown in for necessary romantic sub-plotting.
With Molly Ringwald on board as Jerrica and Kimber’s aunt, and a passing reference to the music which made the ’80s version so “groovy,” Jem and the Holograms has its heart in the right place. It wants to be knowing nostalgia updated so that today’s tweens can appreciate it. By playing the social media angle and avoiding any real need for Synergy (except as a plotting point), it wants to talk to that contemporary demo. But unless they were raised only on a diet of Disney Channel sitcoms, they’ll probably find this exercise in music business backdoor shenanigans exasperating. Or downright dull.
In the original version, Jem and her siblings (luckily, Aja and Shana are still her foster sisters here) were trying to make their way through a morass of shady industry types. There was also the Misfits, another all girl group who traded on sex appeal and danger to make their way up the charts. The rivalry between the Holograms and those baddies, plus the ongoing adventures provided by the holographic Synergy (who back then looked like a Jazzercise instructor), offered up weekly excitement. For nearly two hours, the live action film can’t find a single reason to make us care.
We don’t question whether Jerrica et. al. will make it — the movie is named after them. The social media angle, and our heroine trying to have a normal life by taking the stage in “disguise” is a straight lift from Hannah Montana (which was, itself, a rip-off of sorts from Jem). The whole idea of stardom in the high tech era is perfect for dramatic tension and exploration. Jem and the Holograms couldn’t be bothered with such. All director Jon Chu wants to do is prove he has chops beyond the Step Up films he guided before. He fails in that capacity as well.
The original TV series was the precursor to girl power and the inspiration for a dozen bedroom music careers. This new live action attempt at Jem and the Holograms only goes to prove that, sometimes, revisionism is just another way of ruining a viable property.