Lying somewhere at what one can only hope is the bottom of the heap for studios looking to repurpose intellectual property for new film franchises, Jem and the Holograms is a poor attempt to reboot the popular 1980s cartoon for the 21st century. And I’m not just talking about the budget for this thing.
Aubrey Peeples stars as 18-year-old Jerrica Benton, a.k.a. purveyor of vaguely inspirational pop songs Jem. In one of many deviations from the original cartoon, Jerrica’s transformation comes through wigs belonging to her aunt (Molly Ringwald) and the liberal use of makeup. That’s right; no holographic projectors for this Jem. After a video of Jem singing a mopey song becomes a viral sensation, Jerrica is flown to Los Angeles with her backing band, made up of her sister and her aunt’s two foster daughters. They’re invited by music mogul Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), who thinks the key to making Jem a bigger success is keeping her true identity a secret. Along the way, Jerrica becomes friendly with Erica’s intern/son, Rio, and she discovers that her deceased father’s incomplete project, Synergy, may not be so incomplete.
You might expect a film about a band would feature a lot of music. You’re wrong. There are maybe five or six total musical moments in the film, and they’re shot with a complete lack of energy. Director Jon M. Chu initially broke through with the Step Up films, but apparently he can only shoot compelling shots when there’s dancing involved, and there’s no dancing here. There’s also not much live singing here; once the band starts “performing,” the songs are generic pop tracks with instrumentation that clearly doesn’t come from the girls on screen. What there is a lot of here are YouTube clips. Scenes are frequently interrupted by YouTube clips of people talking about how much they love Jem (including a few welcome cameos from stars of Universal films that made a lot more money this year), and occasionally by music videos of amateur takes on pop songs that serve as score, with the audio constantly present as the videos cut back to the film, then back to the video in question.
To their credit, the cast tries to make the material here work. Peeples, mostly known from her role as Layla Grant on Nashville, has the musical talent for Jem’s few live performances, and the camaraderie between Jem and her sisters is solid (even if the material isn’t). The film also benefits from Ringwald and Lewis, who are able to convey their characters well with little material. Lewis in particular gets some hilariously pointed lines that provide some of the film’s few intentional laughs. As for Guzman…his delivery just can’t make some of his clunky lines work, but he’s pretty and wearing nothing but a towel in one scene, so that counts for something, right?
Clearly, this film isn’t targeted for adult fans of the original series (and from what I gather, they’re not thrilled about the changes taking place based on the trailers alone). The film seems to want to target young misfits instead, which would be great if the film was good. Instead, it’s a two-hour long mess that tries to build up Jem and her band (not called the Holograms until right at the end), then has Jem come out and tell her audience, “We are all Jem.” Everyone is special. Except for the audiences forced to watch this film – they’re not special.