Young people, right? They like young-people shit, like YouTube videos, Instagram selfies and crazy hair. If you hate young people but want to pander to them for some reason—like, if you have loathsome, foul-smelling stepchildren—you can always take them to see Jem and the Holograms.
Jem and the Holograms is loosely based on a beloved 1980s cartoon about a girl group that has a secret supercomputer. But the operative word in that last sentence is “loosely.” Not only does Jem and the Holograms bear little resemblance to its source material beyond a few basic details, but the film’s real heartfelt goal is to capture a moment in youth culture, a moment of smartphones and oversharing and “likes,” and weak pop music.
The original Jem and the Holograms was a fun, frothy revel about Jem (aka Jerrica) and her friends reaching for fashion and fame. The “Jem Girls” (as the cartoon’s theme music calls them) are glamorous and fun-loving-but-earnest, while their rival girl group, the Misfits, are selfish, mean and ruthless—and generally about 20 times more fun to watch. I’ve watched a ton of Jem episodes this week in preparation for this movie, and it only served to make the film version look worse by comparison.
The movie version keeps the basic concept of “girl group reaching for fame,” but bolts it onto an obsession with social media. The new Jem movie parrots messages about believing in yourself and being true to your own identity, but the actual message that’s hammered home over and over is: “You should define yourself entirely according to your social media profile.”
In this new version of Jem, Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples) is a shy young girl whose mother (Molly Ringwald!) is about to lose their house to the bank, unless a miracle happens. Five seconds later, a miracle happens: Jerrica’s video of herself singing a bland acoustic ballad goes ULTRA viral on YouTube and “Jem” becomes an overnight sensation. Soon Jem, her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott), and their stepsisters Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko), are off to Los Angeles to be groomed for stardom.
This sets off a by-the-numbers story of ingenues becoming rockstars and learning harsh lessons about fame and loyalty, that trudges through all the same points as every other music rise-to-stardom movie, only with less conviction and energy. This movie is a travesty of the girl-singer genre—and I say that as someone who watched Mariah Carey’s Glitter from beginning to end.
But the movie does include a version of Synergy (or 51n3rgy, I guess), the super-computer that advises Jem and provides cool holographic disguises in the original cartoon. Except that in this verison, Synergy is a shitty robot that Jem’s father built, which looks a bit like Echo from Earth to Echo crossed with Wall-E. There’s a running subplot where Jem and the Holograms have to hunt down the missing pieces of the robot, which Jem’s dead father left hidden in various places in L.A. as a kind of sadistic scavenger hunt.
Basically, Synergy in this film is another piece of consumer electronics, feeding into the film’s general obsession with “the kids and their ipoops.”
Which brings me to the film’s real narrative engine. The “pop star” stuff is pro forma, the “completing a cool robot” stuff is meh, but this film’s heart is really all in the YouTube videos. Not only does Jerrica/Jem narrate the entire movie through a video-blog she’s recording on her laptop (and there’s the usual amount of “found footage” action here and there too), but director Jon M. Chu has gone out of his way to intersperse actual YouTube videos with the action.
The YouTube videos inserted into Jem take two forms. There are videos that Chu solicited from fans of the 1980s cartoon, talking randomly about how much they love Jem and the Holograms, and those are dropped in here and there, whenever Chu feels the need to try and convince us that we should care about these lifeless characters.
More fascinatingly, though, whenever the movie reaches one of its rare moments of drama and conflict, suddenly a YouTube video of people randomly having a drum-circle or beatboxing or breakdancing gets intercut with the action. And the soundtrack of that video becomes the soundtrack of the scene—so it’s like when Jem gets (feebly) angry or assertive, the beatboxers or drummers are expressing Jem’s emotion. Or maybe Jem is powered by the collective emotion of all the people posting amateur videos on the Internet. It’s hard to say which.
In either case, this movie outsources its biggest moments of narrative intensity to random YouTube vids, which is a filmic choice so incomprehensible, I’m tempted to intrepret it as some kind of grand statement of Dada anti-meaning. Like, there’s no functional difference between this studio-produced Hollywood movie and some incredibly rough, totally uneventful YouTube videos, because both things are just meaningless successions of images. Un Chien Andalou via Pewdiepie.
But I think the message is more along the lines of: Jem belongs to social media, because social media created her when her acoustic music video went viral, and she is whatever the internet group mind thinks she is. As I said, superficially the movie has a story about finding your true self and honoring your own identity—but it’s weaksauce, and meanwhile the movie becomes desperately excited whenever it has a chance to create another YouTube collage.
In a nutshell, Jem and the Holograms is a film about being swallowed up by social media, to the point where your own identity is consumed and you become a kind of Snapchat version of the Borg. But it pays lip-service to individuality.
This is fascinating, because I haven’t seen a failure of storytelling like Jem before. I’ve seen plenty of other kinds of failures, but this one is new.
Normally when I’m sitting through a bad movie, I start just laughing at the terrible choices or slipshod performances after a while, and in a few cases I’ve gotten actually angry (looking at you, Lone Ranger.) But Jem and the Holograms had me sighing, groaning, and rocking back and forth in misery and despair.
That said, Chu is a gifted music-video director, and there are a handful of performance segments that are actually pretty fun to watch. (But the actual songs are terrible and formulaic, so that doesn’t entirely help.)
The weird thing is, we already had a recent TV show that did an okay job of exploring some of the themes of Jem and the Holograms. The Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana was very consciously styled after Jem in the sense of having a main character whose “secret identity” is as a bewigged, glam pop singer, and somehow nobody ever recognizes her with the wig off. Hannah Montana does a credible job of capturing the tone and sensibility of classic Jem, while updating them for a 21st century audience—so it’s not as if this couldn’t be done. (And yes, I’ve watched way too many Hannah Montana episodes. Sue me.)
As it is, Jem and the Holograms stands as a new low in the long, terrible catalog of movie versions that missed the point of their source material. And it’s sort of fascinating that the Transformers films, for all their innumerable shortcomings, manage to at least contain cars that turn into robots and a few other key elements, while Jem (from the same company, Hasbro) is basically stripped of all its defining characteristics and turned into generic fluff mixed with “relevant” Instagrammery. Draw your own conclusions about why Transformers (aimed at boys) gets a semi-respectful adaptation, while Jem (aimed at girls) gets bastardized. Especially given that Chu originally pitched a faithful version of Jem, and was shot down because it sounded too wild and crazy. (Cars that turn into alien robots=not crazy. A girl pop star who uses holographic disguises to maintain a secret identity=crazy.)
The main characteristic of Jem and the Holograms is a terrible, soul-numbing blandness, that accurately replicates the feeling of watching a few dozen amateur YouTube videos. The “girl power” of the original has been replaced by a kind of denatured internet power, selfhood by consensus. You should drag your children to see this movie only if you wish them to come away understanding your contempt, not only for their intelligence, but for their very personhood.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books.Follow her on Twitter, and email her.