There’s a scene in Jem and the Holograms in which Jem (Aubrey Peeples) and Rio (Ryan Guzman) break into the headquarters of Jem’s music label after hours to steal back a pair of important earrings that she had given to her manager, Erica (Juliette Lewis), for safekeeping. This scene is long and elaborate and convoluted and makes absolutely no sense. At no point is it established that Erica a) is aware that these earrings are important or b) wouldn’t give the earrings back to Jem if Jem had merely asked Erica for them once the music label opened for business the next morning. As this scene went on and on and on (and on) I just kept asking myself, “Why are they doing this?” It fells like an important scene must be missing. Most of Jem and the Holograms is like this.
“Oh, what do you know about Jem and the Holograms, anyway?” you probably aren’t asking yourself because you’re probably just surprised this movie exists in the first place considering the lack of advertising behind it – but, I will answer this question anyway. I know quite a bit, actually! When the animated series was at the height of its syndicated popularity, my parents had just moved me to a new school so a) I had no friends which b) left me with plenty of time to watch television. So, between Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Transformers and Centurions, I watched Jem. I’m not going to pretend that it meant so much to me, but it was entertaining in a way the theatrical version is not.
In the animated series, Jerrica Benton owns Starlight Music. She uses a computer called Synergy, using a program in her earrings, to create a hologram disguise for herself so that she can also be the lead singer of a popular rock group without anyone knowing. It was kind of like if The Bangles were superheroes and Susanna Hoffs were secretly the CEO of Columbia Records. It was fun.
In the new film, Jerrica is no longer the owner of Starlight Music, but, instead, a teenager who becomes famous after a YouTube video of her singing an acoustic song goes viral. Jerrica, now going by Jem, is recruited by Erica (Lewis), but Jem will not agree to sign on unless she gets to bring her three sisters (one biological sister, Kimber, and two foster sisters, Aja and Shana, which is confusing, but this does line up with the animated series) along as part of the band. Jem is the “talent” and the rest of the band’s future employment at Starlight sets up most of the strife and drama. Oh! Except for a robot (this is how they use Synergy in the film) that takes Jem and her sisters on a not-at-all interesting scavenger hunt for “clues” to a secret message that Jem’s deceased father has left for her. (My only takeaway from any of this is that Jem’s father really loved Jem and couldn’t care less about Kimber.)
(As an aside, Erica is set up as the evil villain of this movie, but for the life of me I didn’t find much wrong with anything she did. Her only crime seems to be wanting to give Jem a lot of money and not really being that interested in the other three sisters. But, because of this, we are supposed to hate this person. I never hated her and felt like she got a raw deal.)
“But this movie isn’t for you,” you actually might be thinking. Okay, that’s fair! I will say this though: I saw Jem and the Holograms with around 50 teenage girls and their response was, at best, “distracted.” Two girls behind me were actively making fun of the same plot points that I was making fun of in my head. (I was literally the only male human being in the theater. To the point that, before the movie stared, the security guard announced, “Ladies, time to turn off your phones … oh, and that one gentleman up there who is here, too.”)
For the life of me, I’m not sure why Jon Chu (a veteran of a couple of Step Up movies and G.I. Joe: Retaliation and a director I like quite a bit) decided to integrate so many YouTube clips into the film. Like, if you wind up seeing Jem and the Holograms, I really hope you enjoy YouTube clips of people being “amazing,” because we get to watch a lot of these clips in their entirety. When there’s a dramatic moment in the film, whelp, here comes another round of YouTube clips. I’m trying to imagine the person who forks over legal tender to watch amateur YouTube clips in a movie theater; in my imagination, that person has a frown on his or her face. The message of the movie is “everyone is special.” At one point Jem tells her concert crowd, “We are all Jem.” By the end, I felt like the only person in the world who isn’t special because I was the one who had to sit there and watch this movie. I am not Jem.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.