Jem and the Holograms Review

Jem & The HologramsFollowing the commercial success of the G.I. Joe toys and cartoon series in the early eighties, Hasbro set about trying to repeat their winning formula with a new cartoon series entitled Jem. G.I. Joe writer Christy Marx was brought in and in 1985 Jem began airing on US television. It’s now thirty years later and we have a live-action Jem feature film, directed by none other than Jon M. Chu, whose last two films were the financially successful and not entirely awful G.I. Joe: Retaliation and a documentary about arguable the most popular tween pop star in the world. What could possibly go wrong?

Simply put, a lot. But what is perhaps most fascinating and often incredibly frustrating about Jem and the Holograms – the rest of the band, fittingly, get their name in the title too – is that in adapting the series Chu and screenwriter Ryan Landels clearly had the right idea about so many aspects of the film.

Take, for instance, the casting. In the central role of Jem we have relative newcomer Aubrey Peeples, who imbues the role with a great deal of genuine warmth and heart, and who even brings to min Kristen Stewart at times. Surrounding her are her three sisters, one by blood and two who are adopted. These three are racially diverse, differently skilled and all shown to be capable and confident. Their house is run by their aunt, played with a great deal of charm by Molly Ringwald, and the primary antagonist is Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis). It’s rare to see so many decent female roles in a Hollywood movie and it’s all the more gratifying to see when one considers that Erica is a gender swap from the cartoon, in which her character was male and called Eric.

The film also prioritises female friendship within the plot – albeit at one point with hilariously manufactured drama and a misjudged montage – and Chu opts for the female gaze over the male one at almost every available turn.

None of this feels like an accident and in the early scenes we see a number of very natural feeling interactions between characters who are fleshed out as real people. People who live in the real world. And, importantly, live online in a fashion that is just as real and no doubt highly relatable to a young audience. But what quickly begins to creep in is an air of inadvertent silliness and a number of tonal shifts that will leave many viewers with whiplash.

Following a sequence, for instance, in which the girls are attempting to follow a peculiar scavenger hunt left by Jem and her sister Kimber’s father, they are forced to jump into a river. The lights from the pier illuminate them as they swim underwater in a sequence that is beautifully shot by Chu and cinematographer Alice Brooks and wonderfully visually communicates important plot and character information, as Jem begins from this point on to feel more free, confident and able to express herself.

But this moment is swiftly followed by a sequence of the four girls and their chaperone Rio (Ryan Guzman) singing an ‘acapella’ song. This sequence is shot in an entirely dull fashion and whilst the characters have just made a point of saying that music should be about something and real, not autotuned, they sing a rather simplistic plot driven song that is not delivered in a real way but autontuned to the nth degree. Oh yeah, and multiple times throughout the sequence Chu cuts to a small robot named Synergy who seems perfectly calibrated to annoy and bewilder audiences.

In the original cartoon Synergy was a computer that created holograms and looked pretty much like a futuristic church organ. This new Synergy – it’s actually spelt 51N3RG.Y, but I don’t think I can bear to write that more than once – appears to be visually modeled more on EVE from WALL-E and is crucial to the plot, but only in a way that actually makes no sense whatsoever the more you think about.

In the second half of the movie Synergy continues to return like a fungal nail infection that just won’t go away, the plot spirals out of control and into illogical nonsense. Any sense that the characters struggles and successes matter melts away and we are mostly left with some rather nice production design and lighting and little else. A later sequence, for instance, in which Jem performs alone, flanked by dancers, is stunningly designed and a pleasure to watch but it’s all a pretty hollow affair when the drama of why she’s performing solo carries as little weight as the CG Synergy that frequently scuttles around her feet.

Jem and the Holograms is a fascinating failure, but a failure nonetheless. No-one sets out to make a bad movie and Chu and co. had a number of great instincts and admirable ideas here, but Jem and the Holograms is ultimately messy and often horribly misjudged.