by Lee Purvey
“Everyone has a secret identity,” quips Jerrica Benton in her opening monologue to Jem and the Holograms, the ill-advised new adaptation of a 1980s kids show and toy line. “Why else would Facebook give you a wall?”
This is the only interesting question offered by the latest in what’s looking to be a long line of Hasbro clusterfucks: how kids that grew up in the media shitstorm of the ‘00s and ‘10s struggle to reconcile their relationships, family life, and self-conception with the exponentially numerous tools for identity-crafting available in the pocket of their blue jeans. Unfortunately (but to no one’s surprise), this flicker of substance is soon buried in a movie that only piles more gloss and autotuned platitudes onto the pop cultural trash heap it pretends to critique.
Director: Jon M. Chu
Producers: Jason Blum, Scooter Braun, Jon M. Chu, Stephen Davis, Brian Goldner, Bennett Schneir
Writer: Ryan Landels
Cinematographer: Alice Brooks
Editors: Michael Trent, Jillian Twigger Moul
Music: Nathan Lanier
Cast: Aubrey Peeples, Stefanie Scott, Aurora Perrineau, Hayley Kiyoko, Molly Ringwald, Isabella Kai Rice, Barnaby Carpenter, Jason Kennedy, Nathan Moore, Juliette Lewis, Ryan Guzman
US Theatrical Release: October 23, 2015
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
Writer Ryan Landels does his best (okay, probably not his best) in adapting what sounds like pretty unfilmable source material. Rather than sticking to the animated show’s holographic-superhero-as-rockstar premise (believe me, it’s not worth explaining), he makes Jerrica (played ruefully by Aubrey Peeples) a normal girl from Anywhere, California, who finds herself catapulted to internet celebrity when her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) posts a video of her performing on YouTube under the pseudonym “Jem.” Seeing a solution to the very vague financial troubles confronting her aunt and legal guardian (Molly Ringwald, sadly), Jem agrees to a management deal with mega-label Starlight Enterprises and soon she and her bandmate sisters -- Kimber, plus two foster siblings played by Aurora Perrineau and Hayley Kiyoko -- are whisked off to Los Angeles for a star-making series of promotional concerts. No sooner do they arrive, however, than the villainous Starlight head Erica Raymond (a well-cast Juliette Lewis) grabs the reins of Project Jem, forcing Jerrica towards a choice between a world of glitz and glamor and the family she holds dear.
Director John M. Chu -- clearly the right man for the job here, having previously made another film based on a toy line -- mines the internet for a variety of clever storytelling gimmicks. Changes in setting are conveyed via Google Earth images. During an early email negotiation, Jerrica and Erica’s traded demands appear suspended on screen as they type, interspersed with found footage from a YouTube drum battle. In a yucky but potentially pretty smart marketing move, Jem’s sudden ascent is cataloged by a barrage of fake media clips heralding a global social media movement surrounding the inspirational “#Jem.” Though this post-Catfish aesthetic is interesting from a formal perspective, it's ill-suited to a movie that falls short on imagination and substance in pretty much every other way.
All aspects of this story seem underdeveloped, from the weirdly timeless and cultureless world the four sisters occupy (neither the girls’ ages nor any extra-familial social or academic life are ever mentioned) to the flat segments about Jerrica and Kimber’s father’s death. This latter topic leads to an entire subplot -- dragged along in perverted form from the TV show -- in which Jerrica and co. must conduct a citywide treasure hunt to activate a small robot (!) named Synergy, her inventor father’s final creation. When all else fails, Chu and Landels start pulling heartstrings, milking the orphan angle for everything it’s worth and throwing some less attractive and/or non-heteronormative faces into testimonial montages avowing Jem’s inspirational influence.
This shaky structure might hold a little more weight if the film in any way delivered on its promise of authentic, quality music. But, considering the attention to detail applied to the rest of the film, lines like, “No, you’re not alone / We can be alone together” were probably all we should have expected.
Halfway through the movie, Samantha Newark, the voice of Jem in the original series, shows up playing a hairdresser -- one of several little insider winks from the filmmakers. This is actually a nice touch, but, placed into context, also a sad reminder: besides a couple voice roles in video games and an unseen animated short, this is Newark’s first appearance in visual media since the show wrapped in 1988. It seems all too likely Jem and the Holograms will meet a similarly forgotten fate.