Jem and the Holograms, the movie, has as much to do with the 1980s cartoon Jem and the Holograms as a Youtube video of housecats has to do with Thundercats. If you are a fan of the cartoon Jem, don’t bother with the movie as you will only make yourself angry. If you are neutral on the cartoon, or have no memory of it, don’t bother with Jem because you will be bored, possibly even confused. This is a really bad non-movie, alienating to pre-existing fans and mystifying to everyone else. It’s appealing to no one, and its spectacular belly-flop on opening weekend indicates that everyone except me did the smart thing and avoided it like the plague.
Jem starts as a kind of fairytale for the special snowflake generation, with shy Jerrica (Nashville’s Aubrey Peeples) living with her three gregarious sisters, social media addict Kimber (Stefanie Scott), fashion-obsessed Shana (Aurora Perrineau), and kleptomaniac Aja (Hayley Kiyoko). Jerrica and Kimber are being raised by their aunt, Molly Ringwald, and she makes the girls harmonize whenever they fight. Err…sure. It’s impossible to care about any of the girls because they’re never real characters, they’re just motivational posters for four acceptable types of femininity. You’re shy! Okay! You’re a tomboy! Cool! You’re smart! Good! You’re…into social media? Whatever!
The message of Jem is baffling. It’s supposed to be empowering to young girls, but the real message of Jem is that if there is anything special about you at all, it will be co-opted, corporatized, and commodified until you don’t recognize yourself anymore. The movie throws its own “find yourself, be yourself” message out the window by having Jerrica maintain the “Jem” façade, keeping the spunky, assertive, accomplished part of her personality separate from the meek girl constantly seeking approval, and identifying “Jem” as the costume—only pretend to be spunky, girls!
Synergy is no longer a supercomputer but is instead an obnoxious little robot only good for scavenger hunts, and the music sucks. Jem sings a handful of original songs throughout the movie which are uniformly terrible. Director Jon M. Chu has a music video background, though, so the performance scenes are well done at least, if you can tune out the actual songs themselves. The Synergy scavenger hunt and the Jem secret identity story have nothing to do with each other, and the mish-mash of plots makes it feel like the filmmakers just didn’t know what kind of movie they were making.
And as Scott Mendelson at Forbes points out, this is a problem because it narrows the margin for female-centric movies going forward. The failure of Jem won’t result in a do-over in a few years—Jem and her Holograms will be buried in the back of the Hasbro closet for the foreseeable future. The people involved with Jem won’t look at it and see their bad decisions played out, they’ll blame a disinterested audience—they’ll assume girl stuff doesn’t sell. Jem is not a good movie and it has a lot of problems—we’re not even talking about the Youtube videos intercut with the actual movie, but that is a real thing that happens—but part of its failure is that no one was committed to making an actual Jem movie. The producers threw out everything cool about Jem and the Holograms—like the actual holograms—and made a generic “everybody is special” movie.
Movies about girls and women don’t get to fail, because the consequences are catastrophic. Jem is done. This is it. This was her one shot, and she blew it. Or rather—the group of men who made the movie blew it. The director, the screenwriter, and the team of producers were all male. They made this movie blindly, groping in the dark for what they think fifteen year old girls want. Perhaps if women—or at least one woman—had been involved in the development and making of Jem, they would have better understood and reached their teenaged female audience. There’s no guarantee that if they’d handed Jem and the Holograms to women to make, it would have come out any better. But it certainly couldn’t have been any worse.