With no nostalgic bias or any real affinity for Jem’s totally tubular television show, my first true interaction with Jerrica Benton is Blumhouse’s (assuredly budget-controlled) adaptation, this year’s Jem And The Holograms. You know, the version where Google Maps substitute for overhead views, musical interludes are comprised of existing YouTube videos edited together, and where fan-submitted videos make up entire scenes of footage – yup, it’s all Blumhouse-d to hell. Poor Jon M. Chu was most certainly handcuffed monetarily on certain decisions, but even so, that doesn’t excuse a blasé coming-of-age story that should have been “outta sight” given Jem’s (originally) holographic disguise – which is totally changed. Here’s the watered-down, Blumhouse version of Jem that fans certainly weren’t asking for, built on healthy doses of believing in yourself, misty-eyed hugs, and utterly mundane generics.
Aubrey Peeples stars as Jerrica, a small-town girl who lets her shyness hide an immensely talented voice from the world. Wounded at a young age by the death of her father, she now lives with Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald) and her sisters, both by blood and association. Kimber (Stefanie Scott), her real sister, is a social media maven, but Jerrica couldn’t be more the opposite, even with her immense musical talents. Afraid to open up, Jerrica rebrands herself as Jem and tries making a music video, but scraps the recording – or so she thinks. Kimber gets her hands on the video, and instead unleashes it on the internet where Jem becomes an overnight sensation. It’s not long before Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) from Starlight Music comes calling, ready to sign Jem to a big-time deal, but the path to stardom doesn’t come without a few roadbumps. Trivial, inconsequential roadbumps.
Jem And The Holograms abandons 80s pop-rock psychedelics for internet fame, turning her previous alter-ego into nothing but another Justin Bieber. Jerrica’s deceased father leaves behind a beat-boxing robot named S1.N.E.R.G.Y (or some equally confusing acronym) – Jem And The Holograms‘ only saving grace – but besides his adorable existence, Chu’s film feels like four girls who are playing “Let’s Be Rockstars!” at a slumber party. Give me an hour and a half of S1.N.E.R.G.Y gettin’ down, not a weak script that knows nothing about momentum or pacing.
The message Jem champions is beautiful, but Ryan Landels’ screenplay mishandles her preachy moments of relentless positivity by removing drama from every scene imaginable. There’s no rival band, Erica Raymond only asserts herself as a villain in small spurts, and Chu ends up directing one long music video that sets up the Jem movie we all wanted – not the weightless origin that’s thinner than a guitar string.
The struggle of Jem And The Holograms is simple – do you accept solo stardom and forget those who supported you, or ditch celebrity for family? In a pivotal climax, Jem is forced to make this decision, but right after a quick song about losing sight of yourself, the glitter-plastered songstress is greeted by her forgiving ex-bandmates. Literal minutes pass between a tear-filled fight and Jem’s forgiveness, leaving no time to process what should have been a driving conflict.
That’s without mentioning how Erica’s son (Ryan Guzman) goes from caretaker to accomplice in, yet again, a matter of minutes, removing adversity from Jem’s journey – just like how The Misfits aren’t utilized as a rival band. Jem And The Holograms strips the Jem out of its title, where even their band name is thrown-in last minute, and honestly, it doesn’t even make sense given how they’re just some girls who’ve been shellacked with colorful makeup like spackle on drywall. The nods are there, and the costumes are basically rainbow vomit, but none of them are executed faithfully, and are more fan-pandering than cinematic building.
On a high note, Aubrey Peeples can sing, and damn well. Erica signs Jem for a three-show tour, which is her origin essentially, and each show hits upon today’s pop-ruled vibe in ways that didn’t make me cringe (not a personal fan of Top 20 stuff). Peeples is an entertainer, and when on stage, she’s a pint-sized forced to be reckoned with. If there’s any takeaway from Jem And The Holograms, it’s that the film’s star will be entertaining audiences both on and off the screen for years to come, whether it be a box-office-permitted sequel, or in front of a live concert audience. Her bandmates are all lovable in a direct-to-DVD Disney movie kind of way, and S1.E.N.E.R.G.Y is a robotic scene-stealer, but Peeples flexes muscles that command the neon-drenched spotlight.
The unfortunate fact is, Jem And The Holograms could have been about any young starlet who struggles with being more than an empty, pretty face – which sucks, because it’s a strong message for kids who fancy themselves an outcast. Jem is a symbol for those who are hiding behind another identity, as you lose touch with the real you, but she’s a lazy symbol who is ham-fistedly brought to screen.
Much like Jem, it’s a film that’s all for show, shoving sugary sweetness down our throats without detailing the hardships that Jerrica constantly babbles on about – and even at that, it lacks the magic of Jem. Why strip the futuristic intrigue of Jem for a story that could have been (and has been) told a billion times before? Rhetorical question, but still, have we really stooped so low as to not only reboot classic properties, but destroy them in the process? Ugh, again, RHETORICAL QUESTION, but one that has to be asked.
As Erica threatens at one point, anyone can be Jem. She’s just a figure that can be replaced by another lookalike – and that sentiment resounds mightily for Jem And The Holograms, as well.
It's funny how Jem And The Holograms speaks volumes about individuality, yet, at its core, comes across as generically lacklustre as any Disney Channel special might.