The christening of Jem and the Holograms, like almost everything else in director Jon M. Chu’s live-action update of the Hasbro franchise, happens in the tossed-off improvisation of the moment. Rio (Ryan Guzman) blurts the new band name out when a top Rolling Stone editor asks for the vital stats of his newest and hottest musical act, but his report isn’t the result of a flint of inspiration or thematic summation. It’s because his dead-eyed gaze falls upon some dog-eared, chirping, single serving-sized robot spinning merry donuts on the corner of the stage.
In the quintessentially ’80s Saturday-morning cartoon series, Synergy wasn’t just the Sapphic supercomputer and quick-change artist capable of making over Jerrica Benton into rock star Jem in a flash. She also represented, to the girls and gay boys who cherished the show, the chimera of interacting with your own hidden identities; her function was built right into her nomenclature. In this misbegotten reboot, Synergy only represents the marketable love child of R2D2 and WALL-E’s Eva.
This isn’t to deny that the original Hasbro show was also selling merchandise. It was just selling much better, more readily adaptable merchandise. I may be among the very few gay children of the ’80s who didn’t worship Jem’s world-beating music-circuit rampage as the playful coming-out metaphor it clearly, in retrospect, was. (Chalk that one up as another missed opportunity among my own cautionary tales from the “It Gets Better” crypt.) But in the world of 2015’s Jem, escapism has aligned itself entirely with impulsive self-definition, played out in real time through social-media channels, making the whole proceedings much closer to a Muppet Babies recreation of Videodrome than a glam-rock revision of Barbie. The original show was fueled by Jem/Jerrica’s intrapersonal tension. This film only wants to rectify it, if not dismiss it altogether. It’s chock-full of “Don’t you get it? You are a star!” moments, delivered to a performer disinterested in presuming the mantle of an icon.
Aubrey Peeples dutifully performs her very best Bella Swan impersonation in order for Jem to fulfill Jerrica’s humble-warrior flexing. As the movie opens, she and her kid sister, Kimber (Stefanie Scott), are living with their aunt and cousins in the poor side of the San Bernardino Valley. Still reeling from the death of their father, Jerrica and Kimber act out their unmoored adolescent existence in divergent ways. Kimber spills her guts out on Instagram at every opportunity, and Jerrica neglects her calling to don pink, glittery, asymmetrical eye shadow and sing songs that sound like roughly 90 percent of the other performance clips uploaded to YouTube…until Kimber steps in and, you guessed it, sneaks one of Jerrica’s files onto the Internet.
Like every web video ever depicted in any film, Jerrica’s plaintive solo goes viral instantly, and soon the Starlight record label is knocking at her door, embodied by pinch-faced CEO Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis). Raymond fixates on turning the cypherous Jem into the next Sia, and only reluctantly allows Jerrica to bring her three other Bangles out to Los Angeles to undergo girl-group basic training. As Jem’s star rises, Chu intercuts the backstage drama with myriad to-the-camera testimonials from her superficially fringe fanbase, who are all uploading reaction videos like a Top 40 parade of hollow ’grams. Both Jem and the movie around her mysteriously seem to believe that the whole episode is more than a voluminous belch of marketing savvy.
That blithe outlook is also the only plausible explanation for how anyone connected to the film could possibly think anyone with a vested interest in the brand would sit still for this deliberately inoffensive, risk-free embodiment of corporate synergy. As if to throw Xennials a bone, characters occasionally deliver, utterly straight-faced, lyrics from the original show’s theme song. Rio, to Jerrica: “You’ve got it all: glamour and glitter, fashion and fame.” It’s the screenwriting equivalent of Ryan Adams (or any other morose, serious-minded acoustic guitarist) sucking the pop vitality out of Taylor Swift’s deliriously produced tunes.
The film desecrates the source’s devotion to carefully crafted artifice, expecting plaudits for serving up faux-authentic realness, too earnest to even offer up trashy conflict until an eye-rolling mid-credits coda in which a back alley-skulking Pizzazz (Kesha, perfectly cast) and the Misfits are recruited to take down Jem and the Holograms. “We’re gonna get her. Our songs are better,” Pizzazz meows. Their parallel-universe movie would’ve been as well.