Jem and the Holograms: Merely, Merely, Merely Rageous
by Will Lindus
I suppose that before I get too deep into this review of Jem and the Holograms, I have a few lampshades to hang. For starters, I am fully aware that I am a 33 year old, heavily bearded fat dude with a strong opinion on what is ostensibly a pop music-laden tween film. I should also make it known that unlike many other queer-folk of my demographic, I wasn’t a Jem fan in the 80s. I mean, I was acutely aware of Jem; my sister was super into the show, with dolls, and music cassettes (remember those?), and of course, VHS tapes filled to the brim with cartoon adventures. From a distance, I could appreciate the glam and the glitter, the fashion and the fame. Still, I was more of a GI Joe fan growing up. Go Joe! Go figure.
Anyways, like the rest of my fellow 80s kids, I’ve been waiting in… well, the opposite of anticipation… for this nostalgic remake since the details first started pouring in. This film became the punching bag for early critical lashings, some of the hatred coming across more like express passage on the anti-hype train than legitimate criticism. In short (or rather, in long winded, excessive narrative), I wanted to give Jem and the Holograms a fair, fighting chance.
Unfortunately, Jem and the Holograms wanted to give me a regretful evening at the cinema.
What made the 80s cartoon work in the first place was its inherent charm. Sure, it was silly and over-the-top, but dammit if it didn’t own what it was. The film adaptation is clumsy and confused, completely missing the point as to what makes Jem an exciting property to begin with. In the film, young Jerrica hides her talent behind the guise of alter-ego Jem, and soon becomes a YouTube sensation and a recording star. The film flirts with themes of identity and self-confidence, veering dangerously close to Hannah Montana territory, but hey - it almost works. Almost.
See, the problem with Jem and the Holograms isn’t that it turns its back on its source material; no, a modern adaptation of a 30 year old property can thrive with an updated direction as long as the core concepts remain intact and the writing is both confident and competent. Look to the ‘Jem and the Holograms’ comic book series by Kelly Thompson / IDW Publishing as proof to back up that claim.
The problem is that like Jerrica, this film has an identity issue, but there’s no magic earring to bail it out of this jam. In addition to exploring the identity of the artist in an era that favors showmanship over talent, the film begins to tentatively explore the identities that we craft for ourselves on social media while also leading the heroines on a sci-fi (ish) quest around Los Angeles to recover the missing parts to an uninspired and frankly, kind of annoying, robot sidekick named Synergy. Any of these directions could have been compelling. Had it stripped out Synergy completely and told a grounded story about fame and identity, or had it embraced its weirdness with outlandish holograms, big 80s-inspired modern fashion, and confident silliness, I could have gotten behind this film. It needed to pick a direction. Instead, it randomly tossed a collection of vaguely nostalgic concepts and trite self-affirming platitudes into a blender before pouring the resulting mess directly into the script.
There’s a lot to dislike here. The performances were, across the board, boring. I told a friend after seeing the movie that they should have renamed the band ‘Wet Cardboard and the Watching Paint Dry-ograms.’ I didn’t even apologize for the shitty play on words because at that point, my brain was still recovering for the awful dialogue and stale acting. Juliette Lewis was the villain of this film, and I can’t wrap my finger around why that is. I mean, the 80s cartoon featured a much more interesting set of villains in rival band The Misfits, and their absence here feels like the clumsy set up for a sequel that will never come. Lewis's motivations seem flawed; as the head of Starlight Enterprises, she crafts a successful, hit band, and tries to sabotage it within a few weeks because of reasons. Actually, as I write this, I can’t recall her justification for trying to break up the band. False tension? Yeah, let’s go with that.
Also annoying was the film’s reliance on YouTube as a transition method. Clips of people beat-boxing or drumming would play between scenes, with the audio often carrying over to serve as the ‘music’ for whatever tension would play out in the following scene. It was unique, sure, but it wasn’t well executed; I found myself scratching my head and asking myself ‘Why, God, why?’ instead of marveling at what I’m sure the director thought was a novel gimmick.
Probably most frustrating was the fact that this film didn’t realize when it was doing something right. Interspersed amongst all of the terribly weird sequences and awkward YouTube transitions were glimpses of Jem fans - some fictional, some portrayed in the form of YouTube testimonials - explaining what the character means to them. She apparently serves as a source of inspiration to the gender queer, the shy, the alternative lifestyle folks who wish to craft a personae of glamorous confidence of their own. But the film does nothing of real value with these moments; they build towards an anticlimactic finale sequence that spends a long time saying absolutely nothing at all.
Lampshade time again - I fully realize that I criticized this film just now for saying nothing while saying too much, and I realize that I do so as I hit the 900 word mark on this review.
It isn’t all bad; some of the costumes and color palettes are intriguing, with the colors especially popping during a sequence on a pier, and the songs are catchy enough, if a bit disposable. Hidden amongst this film are a few interesting themes, probably too many, but still… there is a tiny glimpse of what could have been a compelling narrative buried within this film.
Nostalgia can’t exist for nostalgia-sake. I know full well that it is profitable to take a classic property, put a spit shine on it, and rake in the bucks from jaded 30 somethings who long for the simplicity of their youth. For me, though, if you’re going to remake an existing property, do so with purpose. Find the fun, the spirit, the creative core of the original while applying bold, intelligent updates. Make your remake matter.
Don’t rely on lazy writing tropes and a familiar title as your crutches, though. That would be merely, merely, merely rageous.
1 out of 5 Bear Paws