Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Substantially less outrageous case file #54: Jem And The Holograms

Illustration for article titled Substantially less outrageous case file #54: iJem And The Holograms/i

My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.

The ill-fated 2015 feature-film adaptation of the popular 1980s cartoon and Hasbro toy line Jem And The Holograms was the subject of fierce online controversy and outrage well before its disastrous release. (Is there anything people online enjoy more than being disproportionately outraged, with the possible exception of pornography, water-skiing squirrels, and cat videos?) Early reports suggested the film was deviating so strongly from the cartoon Gen-Xers knew and loved that the adaptation would be a Jem And The Holograms movie in name only.

It might seem silly for grown-ass adults to get worked up into a hyperventilating frenzy over changes made to a cheesy cartoon (succinctly called Jem) from their childhood. Yet it’s just as silly for filmmakers to take a franchise whose appeal was almost entirely nostalgia-based and alter it so dramatically that it barely resembles the unfiltered blast of 1980s that inspired it. Like so much beloved-yet-not-very-good entertainment from our childhoods, Jem benefited from hitting audiences in their pre-critical stage, when they passively consumed entertainment with dead-eyed acceptance rather than stern judgment.


I vaguely remember watching Jem during its initial run because it was on TV, and I was so undiscriminating that that was pretty much my sole criteria for whether or not to watch something. If it was on TV, I would watch it. If it wasn’t, I would not. But I do fuzzily remember Jem for being very distinctive, with its sadistically catchy theme song, its “Truly, truly, truly outrageous” refrain, the terminally 1980s fashions, and the way it would implement music videos into each episode.

The premise was high-concept and ridiculous even by the lenient standards of toy-line-based 1980s cartoons. The show centered on Jerrica Benton, a young rock mogul who, through a holographic computer named Synergy built by her father, is able to instantly transform into glamorous rock star Jem by fidgeting with specifically designed earrings. When not overseeing Starlight Music and secretly being a rock star, Jerrica attends to 12 foster children collectively known as the “Starlight Girls” and battles her evil competition, a sinister group of misanthropes and ne’er-do-wells known as The Misfits.

Jem was the 1980s distilled into its purest form. It was as ’80s as Spuds Mackenzie snorting cocaine off a Patrick Nagel illustration of the entire Vanity 6 lineup voting for Ronald Reagan. It was as ’80s as Jan Hammer playing an extended keytar solo. So the first curious move the filmmakers made, en route to making one of the biggest flops in recent memory (the film was pulled from theaters after just two weeks, and somehow never came close to making back even its microscopic $5 million budget) was taking this blast from the past and making it so desperately, relentlessly contemporary that it immediately felt dated.

The other bewildering choice the filmmakers made was in removing the holographic-transformation angle that Gen-Xers might remember as the whole fucking point of the cartoon. So instead of changing Jerrica to Jem by fidgeting with her earrings and crazily futuristic hologram technology, the filmmakers apparently felt what was missing from the original was psychological and technological realism. Timid, self-doubt-plagued Jerrica instead transforms through the decidedly non-magical process of putting on makeup and wearing flashier clothes. There’s still a robot named Synergy and even a hologram toward the end, but they both function in a vastly different capacity than they did in the series.


Removing the hologram from Jem is like fellow Hasbro-derived movie Transformers changing the whole vehicles-that-transform-into-robots-and-dinosaurs bit to focus on luxury cars with unusually advanced onboard computer systems. The filmmakers also essentially removed The Misfits from the equation, reducing their role from primary antagonists to a mere cameo at the film’s very end. Those 12 foster kids are nowhere to be found in the film version. Essentially, the filmmakers took everything that audiences remembered fondly from the cartoon and either changed it so dramatically as to be unrecognizable, or removed it completely. Astonishingly, this strategy did not work.

The makers of the new version of Jem And The Holograms decided to bypass science-fiction technology, hologram switcheroos, and charismatic villains in favor of the internet, specifically YouTube. Social media behemoths like Facebook and Instagram and Tumblr and Twitter are name-checked early and often, but YouTube is essentially a major character in the film. The premise is that Jerrica, like everyone on the internet, is creating an online version of herself that is more attractive and confident than her actual flesh-and-blood self. The film posits Jerrica’s transformation into Jem as representative of this whole new paradigm. We don’t need some crazy super-computer to give us a new identity; we can do it ourselves on our plain old laptops and iPads and smartphones.


Accordingly, the film is littered with YouTube videos that serve as a Greek chorus to the action. Jerrica narrates the film staring right into the frame in YouTube videos that deliberately call to mind both vlogs and reality-show confessionals. She starts the film as a small-town California girl who uses YouTube to vent her frustrations; she becomes a viral sensation when a private video she recorded is leaked onto YouTube by her sister Kimber. In a turn of events that echoes the rise of Justin Bieber (whose manager, Scooter Braun, executive-produced the film), Jerrica, under the pseudonym Jem, rockets to stardom and attracts the attention of star-maker Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), a snarling force of nature who seemingly came out of the womb smoking cigarettes and rocking leather pants. Lewis, who embodies the 1990s the way Molly Ringwald (who plays Jerrica’s aunt and guardian) does the 1980s, delivers a campy, drag-queen performance that suggests that she is the only person in the cast who realizes that she’s acting in a silly adaptation of a cornball 1980s cartoon, and not an earnest drama about a grief-stricken young woman’s search for identity and self-acceptance in the crazy-making world of instant fame.

Jerrica and her band (Kimber and foster siblings Aja and Shana) get a crash course in stardom from the cynical and pragmatic Erica and her hunky son Rio (Ryan Guzman), who soon emerges as Jerrica/Jem’s romantic interest. Meanwhile, Jerrica and her band/siblings go on an elaborate scavenger hunt engineered by Jerrica’s dead inventor father, who created 51N3RG.Y (pronounced “synergy”), a Wall-E-like robot that beat-boxes in what turns out to be another of the film’s many weird nods to realism.


Erica manipulates Jerrica into dropping the band for the sake of becoming a Lady Gaga-like solo artist, but she more or less reconciles with her band/sisters instantly. Then Jem becomes a half-assed heist movie as Jerrica and her pals try to sneak into the heavily guarded headquarters of Starlight to retrieve a special pair of earrings that are the final component in the scavenger hunt that consumes much of the film, leading Jerrica back to the father whose death is still a fresh wound in her mind. (And to think, this movie was a flop!)

Jem And The Holograms, in both its cartoon and feature film versions, is all about female empowerment. There’s something wonderfully wrong about Rio popping up at the end to tell his mother that because of a clause in his father’s will, he’s able to take over the company whenever he damn well feels like it. The film takes its most powerful (if evil) female character and removes all of her power because Rio’s dead dad says he can.


In its cartoon incarnation, Jem And The Holograms was aggressively artificial and plastic, a dizzy science-fiction action fantasy of secret rock super-stardom filled with synth-pop ditties and garish fashions and makeup. The film version, however, perversely prizes authenticity. It’s all about Jerrica finding her true voice, musically and personally, and inspiring an army of acolytes and devotees (who we naturally spy on YouTube) in the process. She spends a fair amount of the film singing a cappella or accompanied just by an acoustic guitar, to show that she’s got the goods, and isn’t just a studio creation. The film also makes clear that Jem has a very devoted, sizable gay male fan base that finds her music and fashion not just irresistible, but liberating and important. It’s as if the filmmakers can’t decide whether their heroine should be the one-dimensional woman of action of the cartoon or a gender-switched David Bowie.

Jem is overloaded, overlong (with a runtime of nearly two hours), and tonally all over the place, but star Aubrey Peeples is quirky and appealing, although audiences seemed to prefer the one-dimensional Jem to the alternately earnest and wry version in the film. Overqualified director Jon M. Chu (whose credits include standout entries in the Step Up series, the Justin Bieber concert film Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, and another Hasbro adaptation, G.I Joe: Retaliation) gives the film a sleek look and plays with some compelling, if under-realized ideas about the intersection of technology and identity.


Before the film was released, the filmmakers answered criticisms that they’d strayed too far from their source material by explaining that they’d bring back some of the beloved fixtures of the cartoon in subsequent films. This act of unintentional arrogance suggests that they couldn’t conceive of a world where a can’t-miss prospect like a low-budget Jem And The Holograms movie wouldn’t be profitable enough to prompt further entries in the series. Considering that similar properties like G.I Joe grossed in the hundreds of millions, and Transformers in the billions, they could be forgiven for assuming that the film might, at the very least, gross in the mid eight figures worldwide (instead, it topped out at just over $2 million internationally).

The Misfits’ appearance at the end calls to mind how The Amazing Spider-Man 2 stuck Paul Giamatti in a ridiculous Rhino costume at the very end to prepare audiences for the central role he would play in a sequel that never got made. It’s similarly safe to assume that a Jem And The Holograms sequel will never be made, but I found the movie surprisingly interesting for largely the same reasons it flopped. It introduced too many new, half-baked ideas and discarded too many of the ones audiences loved and expected/angrily demanded. The movie tried to dramatically reinvent something fans of the cartoon stubbornly felt didn’t need to be reinvented, and the film’s almost record-breakingly terrible box-office performance sure says they’re right. In the process, the film ends up serving as a harrowing cautionary warning of the dangers of straying too far from the tried and true.


Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco

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