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Hollywood loves its brands. It’s far and away much simpler to sell an audience something they already know than something new, and so studios regularly plunge deep into their library of intellectual properties to try and find something that’s recognizable and can be reimagined for more modern audiences. As far as these projects go, creating live-action adaptations of old cartoon shows is pretty much scraping the bottom of the barrel… which is the path that’s led us to Jon Chu’s Jem and the Holograms: a shallow, lifeless semi-musical propped up by YouTube videos from fans who will surely be mortified to see what has been done with their favorite ‘80s pop icon.
Despite there being a large number of plots from the original television series that could have been borrowed and adjusted for big screen adaptation, Jem and the Holograms instead chooses the most baseline plot available for any film set in the world of music: a talented band (Aubrey Peeples, Stefanie Scott, Aurora Perrineau, Hayley Kiyoko) with one particular superstar is discovered and gains popularity; signs with a shady record producer (Juliette Lewis) to start what seems like the life of their dreams; and then threatens to be torn apart by offers for the aforementioned superstar to start a solo career. It hits literally every single beat that you expect it to, and does so with a tedious thud instead of any kind of bang. The only thing breathing any kind of life into the movie and providing a sense of individual style is the band’s attempt to find all of the parts to complete S1N3RGY, a broken robot that Jem, a.k.a. Jerrica Benton, got from her father before he passed away. But if you’re expecting a mystery smarter than each discovered part of the robot revealing a direct map to the next missing part, you should just prepare to be further disappointed by this movie.
Unfortunately, it still gets worse. The rote and familiar approach to what could be a uniquely stylized feature is made much harder to watch simply because of the shocking number of holes that are torn in its paper-thin plot. Given the opportunity, every character seems to act as irrationally as they can at any given moment – clearly just to move the plot forward – and it immediately takes you out of the film at every turn. For example, you’d think that Jerrica’s bandmates would react slightly better to the news of Jem’s potential solo career if they knew that it was the only thing standing between their aunt/guardian (Molly Ringwald) and homelessness, but the lead singer never seems to feel the need to bring it up. I’m also still scratching my head at a third act development that sees that band execute a heist to recover Jem’s earrings from the record company’s headquarters… despite the fact that she willfully gave them up earlier in the movie, and almost certainly could have gotten them back just by asking for them.
It becomes a matter of irony that the film puts so much emphasis on the idea of having secret identities, because the reality is that it also happens to keep any and all vivid or notable personalities beyond the central hero and villain kept entirely hidden. At times it even feels as though the film is draining its supporting players of attention on purpose. There are seeds planted in the beginning of the movie suggesting that Kimber, Shana and Aja stand out due to their social media savvy, style, and bad girl attitude, respectively. But those traits are aggressively ripped away from them when they’re informed that they’re no longer allowed to use social media; have been assigned a professional stylist to entirely change their look; and are put under strict curfew as part of their record contract. After that point, they all completely blend into the background, and while it’s an easy joke to make, the reality is that they might as well be holograms.
Coming from director Jon Chu, who has a deep background in dance movies, Jem and the Holograms should at least be an eye-popping experience, showcasing some great choreography to pair with the musical sequences, but that’s completely missing from the movie, as well. Instead, what we get are performances such as one where Jerrica is dolled up in her Jem makeup, and just stands still singing into a microphone on stage while dancers wiggle around her. Without dancing, the film’s only real sense of style is the regular interspersing of You Tube-style fan videos with people explaining why Jem has meant so much to them – but within the context of everything else, they feel like they’re just included as if to say, ‘See, there are people interested in this movie!’
At the end of the day, it’s really hard to tell who Jem and the Holograms is actually made for. The Jem brand is surely meaningless to younger audiences, who must surely just see this movie as some kind of odd ‘80s throwback; and so much has been “simplified” and sterilized that fans of the original animated show won’t even recognize it beyond its character names and appreciation for flashy pink makeup. It’s an experience that’s hard to sit through, and I would highly recommend that you don’t.