Jem and the Holograms is Truly, Outrageously Worthless

By  · Published on October 22nd, 2015

Universal Pictures

Here’s something that’s truly outrageous: Jem and the Holograms is made by the same people, director/producer Jon M. Chu, producer Scotty Braun and editor Jillian Twigger Moul, who four years ago gave us the documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. With that surprise gem, they presented a very tight, very entertaining and very insightful narrative of a talented teenager discovered on YouTube who skyrocketed to fame as an iconic representative of a new era for the music industry. Now, with this surprisingly dull adaptation of the vibrant 1980s cartoon of the same name, the filmmakers seem to be trying for a dramatic remake of Bieber’s origins while missing the entire point of what made the earlier film great. It’s so bad that it has me thinking less of the doc, as its brilliance now comes across as a complete accident.

Jem and the Holograms might be fairly (okay, I’m told barely) faithful to its source material, but as a feature film (scripted by Ryan Landels) it’s all over the place. We meet the title rocker pre-fame as Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples) as she breaks the fourth wall via webcam, revealing that she’s the real young woman behind the wig and make-up of Jem. The device formats the story as being told mostly in flashback with the continued confessional serving as voiceover narration. She introduces us to her blood sister, Kimber (Stefanie Scott), and foster siblings, Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko), as well as their guardian, Jerrica and Kimber’s Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald). Together, they’d have made a fine ’80s sitcom, but then their home faces foreclosure and instead of any of the girls getting jobs, Jerrica makes a video of herself singing and playing guitar in order to make it rich on YouTube.

Actually, the apparently private and camera-shy teen has second thoughts about putting herself out into the world, even after she’s somewhat disguised herself with fake pink hair. But Kimber uploads the clip to the web, it becomes a viral sensation said to be as big as Twiggy, the water-skiing squirrel (a pretty dated reference for the Internet, not to mention for anyone who first saw the amazing animal on TV in 1979), and immediately Jem is being wooed by the famous record company mogul Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) to sign with Starlight Music. She’ll only go if her band – that is her sisters – are also invited, so the four head off to Los Angeles, sans guardian for some reason, and are given slight makeovers that are supposed to be a big deal but aren’t and are launched into stardom with a song or two that we never see them record.

Then the robot shows up. Yes, a robot, with a single wheel to move around with and a holographic projector that plays home movies of Jem and her dad – and not really ever Kimber. Their father created the thing before he died, but it hasn’t worked until now, and what it does is propel the girls into a city-wide scavenger hunt that gives them more sentimental videos only for the one daughter to appreciate with each step of the game. Then for the final piece of the puzzle, they need to break into the Starlight building and it becomes a heist movie for no good reason. The idea is that they have to go behind the back of Erica, because she’s not very nice and would never just give her new cash cows what they’re in need of. By this time, though, they have the help of Erica’s son, Rio (Ryan Guzman), who was the girls’ chaperone until it was obvious he also had the hots for his primary ward.

Maybe ward isn’t the right word, since that makes it kind of creepy, but it’s never clear how old the girls are supposed to be, as they seem legally independent but are still living in a foster home – also one says she doesn’t want to go back to juvie. And that’s not the only thing lacking in the characters’ development and portrayal. Jem’s sisters are given only the limited personalities of being “the hacker,” “the fashionable one” and “the kid sister/self-documenter.” It barely even sets up what instruments they play. As Jerrica, Jem has no distinction at all, and as Jem she’s no more defined. She talks about being in a conflict of duality, of leading a double life, yet the movie never distinguishes between these parts other than to show that one wears a wig and is perfectly fine with being a star while the other is … also fine with being a star just not with her own name because, well, who knows? She says she has a secret identity, but nobody ever seems to care about the mystery except Erica, and anyway her alter-ego should be pretty easily discernible to anyone who wanted to find out.

Jem and the Holograms leaves viewers with a lot of unanswered questions regarding its plot and characters and the world they exist in, but the main one concerns what the movie is supposed to be about. That goes for the surface level and anything that might be below. Is it about people hiding behind a wall or false persona on the Internet and/or in fame, dealt with through a classic tale of rags to riches stardom? Is it about a girl learning that her father loved her, apparently a lot more than he loved his other daughter, which he never failed to communicate in person while alive and so didn’t really need a decade-posthumous goose chase and sentient VCR to make clear? Does the movie actually have anything to say about the age of YouTube and social media or could this movie have been set 30 years ago, period-faithful to the animated series, almost exactly as is?

If the movie does have anything going for it, actually, it’s a device that keeps it aligned with the modern age, albeit not necessarily so. Reminiscent of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Jem and the Holograms features a lot of amateur YouTube videos and other clips culled from the web (or seeming to, as for all I know they’re as fake as the documentary interview parts of When Harry Met Sally). Usually they’re simply presented in montages focused on Jem’s rising fame and popularity with fans online, including a mushy collection of kids indicating that Jem’s music saved thei lives. Occasionally, videos of kids dancing and/or performing some kind of percussive sound are intercut with tense scenes involving conflict. Jem and Erica’s initial internet correspondence, for instance, is intermixed with a clip of two teens in a drum kit battle, emphasizing that the messaging back and forth is a sort of duel itself.

Those kinds of clips, especially if real, fit much better with a true story, as in the Bieber doc. But I’d like to recommend another, more recent nonfiction film to anyone thinking of seeing Jem and the Holograms. The Amy Winehouse documentary Amy depicts the short life and career of the singer as a genuine story of an incredibly talented young woman leading a double life, her persona in the spotlight being nothing like that of her true identity. And it has much better music than the generic, overproduced and totally antithetical to the story pop songs found in this completely worthless picture, which I dare say is the worst adaptation of a Hasbro property yet, and that’s saying a lot.

The Upside: The drum kit battle and other amateur videos, so long as they’re real – otherwise no upside at all.

The Downside: The script is all over the place and almost always lacks logic, the characters have no distinct personalities, Molly Ringwald is just a nostalgic prop and there’s a post-credits sequence that threatens us with a sequel.

On the Side: Jon M. Chu previously adapted the Hasbro toy/cartoon adaptation G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.