- Written by
- Ryan Landels
- Directed by
- Jon M. Chu
- Aubrey Peeples, Molly Ringwald, Juliette Lewis
We are in the opening moments of director Jon M. Chu's peppy revamp of the campy eighties cartoon Jem and the Holograms. Here, sitting cross-legged and staring into her webcam, we find Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples) confessing that she is the mysterious pink-haired rock star Jem to her best friend – the Internet. Her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) leaked a video of Jerrica strumming on her guitar in wigged disguise as Jem to YouTube and it's 2015, so overnight the number of views climbed, the tweets amassed, and that video went viral. An Internet star was born.
Even though Jem and the Holograms bills itself as an origin story – how did Jerrica become the badass CEO of Starlight Music and the truly outrageous rock star Jem? – it is a movie almost aggressively of the moment with little patience for its source material. Chu has turned the intuitive computer Synergy into a cute robot pet and Jem into Justin Bieber. He has his female lead mimic Bieber's real-life viral rise to fame in a movie that is clearly for millennials, not for the cult fans of the original series.
Like the Internet news cycle it recreates, the new Jem shows no signs of nostalgia, coasting instead on an extended present driven forward by #inspirational moments and montages. By repeatedly cross-cutting to YouTube footage of wannabe stars, the film punctures the fantasy world it attempts to project and gratingly insists on its authenticity. Whereas Hasbro's cartoon Jem and the Holograms was spunky, brash and over the top, this live-action version of Jem and her sisters dispenses with the camp and goes straight for corny. There's hardly tension, barely any drama and the sugar high you might expect from an eighties redux is replaced by a dull aspartame buzz.
Jem and the Holograms is from the makers of Pitch Perfect and in that spirit it is fun to see an all-female cast rocking out on screen. But this story of female empowerment and friendship was produced entirely by men: two male producers, a male director and a male writer. Christy Marx, the creator of the original Jem series, has a cameo as a journalist, when what the movie could have used was her real – not fictional – writing skills.
The film's best (only?) twist was changing the male character of Eric Raymond – the original arch-rival of Jem and the Holograms – into Erica, played with fierce power postures by Juliette Lewis. Lewis vamps through her scenes without the earnest chip of sincerity that the other characters are carrying around, and she maintains a flair for the cartoonish that is sadly missing from the rest of the movie. For a film that bows down with such reverence to the Internet you would think that it might celebrate the multiple identities we share online instead of pining for authenticity. It's as if Erica is the only one in on the joke: Jem and the Holograms is meant to be pure camp. Just throw on a wig and go with it.