The 1980s animated series Jem and the Holograms is about a larger-than-life stage persona and the equally savvy businesswoman behind the illusion. Using holograms developed by her father’s Synergy technology, record executive Jerrica Benton disguises herself as Jem and enjoys a double life without revealing her true self.
But in 2015, identity and authenticity take on wholly different meanings when you live in an age of voluntary oversharing and normal people turned celebrities. In this remake, again we have a young woman employing a disguise, but it’s more of a security blanket, a way to hide from fame instead of reveling in it.
What’s even weirder, the filmmakers have stripped the movie of the thriller aspect that helped define the series… yet decided that it made perfect sense to replace it with a science fiction mystery.
Teenager Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples) has an inexplicable aversion to the camera, a fierce need for privacy that makes little sense except to distance her from the rest of her attention-hungry generation. That includes her younger sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott), who seeks to bring Jerrica out of her shell even as she mourns their long-dead inventor father, who bequeathed her a random, broken robot. His death sent the girls from Los Angeles to Pine Valley, with their aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald) and foster sisters, fashionista Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and hacker Aja (Hayley Kiyoko).
Playing around with old costumes, and the anonymity they provide, leads to Jerrica recording one of her original songs as “Jem.” It’s a tired trope, the genius songwriter blessed with a gorgeous voice but crippled by stage fright, but what makes this vaguely interesting is that Kimber uploads Jerrica’s video to YouTube without her knowing… only for Jem to go viral in a matter of hours.
That’s when Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) reaches out with a record contract that will more than pay for Aunt Bailey to keep the house and prevent the girls from getting torn apart by the foster care system. What follows is a pretty typical band story with an emphasis on the most desired member grappling with whether to strike out on her own. Compounding that dilemma is that Jerrica finds her enigmatic Jem persona taking over her life in a matter of days: “In a world where everything is public,” a smirking Erica tells a press conference, “this is the first real mystery of our age.” Jerrica gets the anonymity she wanted, but in the process, Jerrica may cease to exist.
I’m not saying it’s a bad message to match up to the franchise, but bafflingly the filmmakers removed the aspect of the story that would best demonstrate this lesson. The Jem of cartoons hides behind a literal hologram; I never watched the original series, but I would have to guess that she suffers much more of a secret identity crisis than does a girl from the Valley. Instead, we’re going solely for metaphors.
A major reason Jem uses the holograms is to protect herself and the band from all manner of bad guys. (The subsequent fight scenes made for great Hasbro toy crossovers.) The filmmakers really missed an opportunity to translate that conflict almost seamlessly into today’s kind of defense you would need an alter ego for: internet trolls. There is a brief joke about not reading the comments, but for the most part Jerrica’s internet fame is untroubled: She goes viral on YouTube, trends on Twitter and—bam!—she’s being offered more money than she knows what to do with. The movie compresses her upward journey into mere minutes, erring far on the side of escapism. Why not show us the struggle of being authentic enough to win over fans, yet special enough that you do what so many others can’t?
Here’s another puzzler for you: If we’re all about the perils of keeping safe your true self in an age of constant scrutiny, why the obsession with all things retro? It’s ironic that this movie comes out in the same week as Back to the Future Day: That franchise’s vision of 2015 quite outpaced our present, yet it nonetheless looked ahead. Jerrica and her sisters seem stuck in the ’80s, not unlike the novelty diner in Back to the Future Part II, or the gunters in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One: Their costumes, jewelry, and tech are all vintage. We’re seriously expected to believe that these girls chronicle video diaries on their clunky digital camera when they all have smartphones?
Even weirder, the robot 51N3RGY (I’m going to save us a lot of trouble and just call her Synergy), while created in the ’90s if not earlier, fits right in with today’s modern tech. Somehow, she manages to resemble EVE from Wall-E and Echo from Earth to Echo, last summer’s found-footage attempt at an E.T. rip-off.
Which leads me to wonder, why not tell all of Jem and the Holograms through the same method? We see Kimber record everything, and the frame story is stolen from Easy A–quirky yet wise yet self-effacing girl narrating into a camera how she got to this unbelievable point–but that motif is never taken to its logical conclusion. The movie flirts with these ideas without committing to any of them.
Internet fame turned IRL (in real life) stardom isn’t enough for these sisters: When Synergy begins pointing them on a scavenger hunt created by Jerrica and Kimber’s dead dad, they’re willing to endanger their record contract to decipher his posthumous message. That the girls (and, later, their handler and Jerrica’s love interest Rio) are so blasé about the existence of a whistling robot makes Synergy stick out like even more of a sore thumb. It’s almost as if the filmmakers decided that a standard coming-of-age movie couldn’t stand on its own, that it needed to be weirdly futuristic in some way: “The kids like robots, right? You had Chappie, you’ve got a whole bunch of Star Wars coming out in the next few years.” Let’s be honest, Synergy has nothing on BB-8.
But the heart isn’t in a cute robot, it’s in the movie’s far-too-brief discussion of social media. In some places, it flounders, such as the use of viral videos (starring normal kids doing flash-mob drum routines or whatnot) as an odd soundtrack for key moments. However, not unlike the early marketing for the first Pitch Perfect, the filmmakers called upon real people to post Instagram videos about how Jem has affected them, how Jem represents their weird and daring impulses. It’s the barest glimmer of intelligent commentary, a look into how the internet can both isolate and unite us.
There’s just one problem. The original theme song goes, “Jem is my name, no one else is the same, Jem is my naaame!” Jem and the Holograms wants us to believe that Jem is like Anonymous, a mask anyone can put on. But the whole appeal of the so-very-vintage-now animated series is that Jem was one particular identity for one particular woman. If this movie wanted to appeal to the current generation, they should have set up Jem as a singular, branded figure like Lady Gaga (who Jerrica does resemble after one makeover), or Beyoncé (who gets quoted as third-act inspiration), or Sia (with her face-hiding wigs and aversion to the camera). Instead, we get an insipid inspirational tale that could have made up a fictional pop idol and been just as effective.