I have memories of the 80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms. They aren’t fond and they aren’t bad, they just are. A movie based on the show didn’t really get me excited in that way that most nostalgia does, but I could see how it could be done right: a campy musical with big hair and some sort of ridiculous hologram plot point. It could be fun, silly and play up on the fact that the cartoon was patently ridiculous. It could play to adults who knew the show and kids who just wanted something fun and full of music.
Jem and the Holograms fails at all of this from nearly the very beginning to nearly the very end. It is a giant mess of underdeveloped plot, failed attempts at nostalgia and characters that were flatter than the secondary cast of Glee. Jem can’t decide if it’s an updated tween movie, a bad melodrama, a bit of campy nostalgia or just a desperate attempt to cash in on whatever vestiges are left of the Disney TV musicals phenomenon. At every turn it misses the point, and for the usually on point Jon M. Chu, who played with the camp of the Step Up series, it’s an embarrassment.
Jem and the Holograms
Director: Jon M. Chu
Release Date: October 23, 2015
What I want to believe is that Jem and the Holograms is really an incredibly smart meta film about our current culture and it’s emotional immaturity caused by split second reactions on social media. I want to believe that so badly, but more likely it’s just a incredibly sloppy screenplay and forced direction that takes what could have been a decent story and turns it into the worst mish-mash of story lines since the original Casino Royale (that film at least works as camp).
We meet Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples), a painfully shy teenager, and her sisters: Kimber (Stefanie Scott), Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko). A musically talented group, they live with their mother (Molly Ringwald). When Jerrica records herself singing a song and Kimber uploads it to the Internet it goes viral overnight and big time record producer Erica Raymond (Julliette Lewis) steps in to sign Jerrica, now known as Jem, to a record deal. Of course becoming big and famous leads to terribly traumatic events over the next month (yes, only a month) and soon everything starts falling apart even though Jem is falling for the totally dreamy son of Erica, Rio (Ryan Guzman). Also, there’s a toy robot that Jem’s father made sending her on a secret quest. You know, because the plot wasn’t random enough.
At first glance one may think that the cliche plot and groan worthy moments — such as the four girls and Rio kicking into a random sing along after committing a crime — are intentional. The film makes heavy use of social media and maybe a commentary on the web’s short attention span is why they’ve condensed the normal “band gets together/band falls apart” into only a month of time. Characters go from best friends to mortal enemies to apologizing to each other in the span of an hour. It is the most ludicrously paced and plotted film I’ve seen in a long while and I kept telling myself it had to be intentional; it had to be a social commentary of some sort.
But it isn’t because it never makes a point. Jem and her sisters never turn to the camera and admit they’re just terrible people. The movie is just plain bad. The plot careens from one random occurrence to another attempting to show… something. Instead it just fulfills cliches. A bunch of privileged teenagers struggle with their inability to get along for a single month. One month! That’s all it takes for Jem to fall apart at the hands of all the pressure she’s feeling by being torn into two personas (Jem and Jerrica) and getting lots of money. It would be infuriating if it wasn’t so laughable. Every time the movie even attempts to make an emotional connection between characters it feels feeble and pointless since Jem and her sister’s emotions are about as stable as a table with uneven legs.
Maybe all that would have been OK for Jon M. Chu had directed the movie with any panache at all. Instead it feels like he’s bored with it and just checking off every request from the studio for a movie that will appeal to teens. Instead of playing up the camp — aside from a single (and fantastic) teaser at the end — Chu takes his bi-polar characters far too seriously. More importantly, the man responsible for making dance movies fun with his stellar direction of dance numbers can’t seem to direct his way through a single musical sequence in this film.
The entire thing is sloppy and devoid of any tone. Chu could have at least put in a few scenes of the band working together or something to make it feel like times is passing, but instead he wastes the almost two hour (!) running time on repeating the same scene over and over. We get it. Jem and Jerrica are two different people. When a Saturday morning cartoon involving a woman literally projecting a different person on top of herself handles this metaphor better than you do then you’ve got serious problems. Throw in a strange plot line about Jem’s father and the mystical robot Synergy, that was clearly just added to appeal to fans of the cartoon, and you’ve got a mess no director could piece together, but that Chu does a horrifically bad job of.
It’s all too bad because somewhere in there is a movie that could have worked. The hints at camp are there during some of the more ridiculous parts, the musical numbers could have worked with a bit more effort, and with just a bit of ironing out and trimming down the film could have felt like something mattered. Chu even uses a neat trick by inter-cutting YouTube musician’s music and videos into the movie as a sort of soundtrack. Unfortunately instead of being innovative it feels forced and tacky like the rest of the film. Eventually they even use YouTuber’s videos talking about the influence of the Jem cartoon on them to make it appear they’re talking about the life changing film Jem. Again, this all takes place over the matter of a month.
Jem and the Holograms is a mess. It’s confusing and directionless and by trying to appeal to everyone appeals to no one. Somewhere, buried deep within this film, is a cult classic that cries to be let out right at the end, but was lost at some point between shoving in a robot mystery and forcing a creepy romance between a possibly underage teen and a college intern.