The Anticipated: Jem and the Holograms

In All, Movies by David

I always knew some movies on my list would be a stretch. Especially considering a lot of them are on the list for reasons besides than the potential quality of the film. At the same time, I have always been fascinated by misfires. There is a lot to learn from watching and deconstructing that type of movie, sometimes more so than watching good or even excellent movies. So that is why I felt Jem and the Holograms was the most intriguing movie of 2015. It seemed impossible that it would end up anywhere between really good and really bad. This is the kind of film that was either going to hit on all cylinders or miss spectacularly. So let’s get this out of the way: this movie is bad. So bad that I am scrapping almost my entire standard format for The Anticipated so I can discuss this film more thoroughly. Let’s jump right in.

Spoilers Ahead

Jem and the Holograms (October 17th, 2015)

There is a sense of mystery in this poster that the movie never actually uses. Makes me wonder if whoever made this poster were the only people that actually understood the movie they were supposed to be making.

In retrospect, Jem and the Holograms was never going to recover from the poor start to its production. There has been clamoring for a Jem movie adaptation for quite some time; while the fan base of the original 1980s cartoon may not be as numerous as other Hasbro properties like Transformers, GI Joe, or My Little Pony, it is certainly one of the more passionate fan bases. The people who love Jem really, really love Jem. So at some point I figured Hasbro and a movie studio would jump in together and attempt to monetize this fervor. But it didn’t happen until the spring of last year. Then abruptly a video appeared announcing a live action movie was being made, and catching most people completely off guard. There was some initial excitement that this movie was finally happening. Jon M. Chu was attached to direct, which seemed like a solid choice, as he masterminded both the Step Up films and GI Joe: Retaliation, all far more enjoyable and watchable than they had any right to be. Plus, his Hulu original series The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD) was a delight to watch. The man has a knack for putting dynamic visuals on the screen, and he seemed to bring the right energy to a Jem adapation. But despite this, there were just so many red flags.

First, a movie based on a show that was in so many ways about female empowerment had its announcement video feature three men talking about the film. Combine this with the fact that it soon became clear that Christy Marx, the original creator of Jem, had no input or role in helping to bring the movie to the screen. (Yeah, she got a cameo in the film, but that always felt like a way to do the least possible to make up for shutting her completely out of the creative process.) The backlash began. Eventually another video was released showing Chu interacting with producer Jessica Hall and cinematographer Alice Brooks, but it didn’t feel like enough to allay the concerns of both Marx and that fans that the film production was lacking feminine perspective.

Pre-production continued down a dark path. The casting seemed to happen at lightning speed, and it was clear that production of the film would be just as rushed, leading people to question whether the film was being given the time it needed to be a good movie. Instead, it felt like this was more and more going to be a cheap cash grab by Hasbro to try and sell more toys. Though let’s be honest–that is what this film (and really any other movie based on a Hasbro property) was always going to be about. The original Jem TV show was designed to sell toys, so why wouldn’t the movie? But other Hasbro films have at least tried to make it look like that wasn’t the case. Jem didn’t even seem to bother. The vibes from this movie were just not good, and the film went radio silent until it released its first trailer earlier this year–and all hell broke loose.

I am not going to pretend I am some big Jem fan. I wasn’t even one year old when the show aired its final episode, and it was not some show I discovered later in life and loved immensely. The one thing I do know about it is that Jem was unique. There was really nothing quite like it, and the fact that it reveled in its uniqueness and encouraged its fans to be proud instead of afraid of what made them different made it easy to see why Jem had garnered such a passionate fan base. So I understand why, when the trailer showed up, and it looked as though Jem had been retooled into a generic, female coming of age story, things got ugly. Everything about the trailer suggested that Jem had gone through the Hollywood machine and emerged as something completely different. One really began to wonder if the filmmakers actually understood the property they were adapting. Well, after seeing the actual movie, it seems like for the most part they really didn’t–or if they did, they were afraid to embrace it.

Oh, if only that had been true…

Jem and the Holograms the movie is just never weird enough. Instead it is contrived, formulaic, and lacks confidence in what it wants to do. If the entire movie consistently missed the point, at least you could chalk it up to the wrong people behind the movie and move on; but the sad thing is that there are parts of the movie that feel inspired and unique. For instance, the final film tag involving the Misfits is excellent. The Misfits have a style all their own, and in their quick scene the film does a better job of showing off their personality and cachet than the entire rest of the film does with Jem. The lighting is darker and purple, there is a more distinct 80s vibe, and although each member of the Misfits barely speaks, you get a quick sense of their personality in a few words. There is an energy to the scene that’s lacking in much of the rest of the film.

Likewise, while there are a lot of problems with Juliette Lewis’s character, Starlight Erica Raymond, her initial entrance into the movie is excellent. She has an attitude that makes her stand out immediately, larger-then-life as she struts up to Jerrica Barton’s aka Jem’s (Audrey Peebles) house. It kind of makes you wonder if the creative team was far more interested in the villains of this world, because they certainly get better treatment than the heroines.

Jerrica/Jem spends much of the movie trying to find herself, which makes for a very boring ride. It’s somewhat defensible that the film decided to take away a lot Jerrica’s power and agency compared to her cartoon version, because the movie is trying to be an origin story. In the cartoon, Jerrica is the owner of Starlight Music and fearless. While some of show’s conflicts came from Jem trying to keep her two personas separate and resulting issues, most of them had external sources. That kind of character might be a bit too larger than life to deal with right away, and instead needs to be eased into. So they went in the opposite direction and made Jerrica a young girl bereft of power and searching to figure out who she is. Presumably the intention of the film was to simplify things, and to not have as clear a dichotomy between Jerrica and Jem as the show did. In fact, mostly Jem is just a cover to allow Jerrica to discover her true self. The problem is, they took this too far. Jerrica is more reactive than active throughout the entire movie. Her sister Kimber (Stephanie Scott) posts her original video online, Erica convinces her to sign a contract to help her family, and Jerrica’s real discovery of who she is spurred on by completing 51n3rg.y (Synergy) and being told by her father how special she is.

This is one of the major reasons one of the movie’s primary conflicts never works: Jerrica is so ill-defined that Jem never feels like anything more than a gimmick, when the Jem persona is supposed to have a life of its own. This makes the supposed low point of the movie fall completely flat. Jerrica signs a solo contract with Starlight so she can take care of her family, even though it effectively kicks her sisters out of the band. But this has no real impact, because there is no teeth to Jerrica’s decision. If the Jem side of her had been better defined, its possible this decision could have incorporated the idea of Jerrica preferring Jem’s life to her own, but that just isn’t true here. So instead we just get a lot of Jerrica acting sad about her decision after being yelled at by her sisters, wandering the streets in the most emo way possible–and then her sisters returning to forgive her after what seems like only a day. (Time is so compressed in this movie that it is often really unclear how much time has passed between events.) The fact that Jerrica doesn’t even do anything to regain her sisters’ trust is troubling, because yet again it prevents the character from actually actively doing something. And she hardly gets any real character development, going from an unknown singer lacking confidence at the beginning to a famous singer with confidence and a boyfriend at the end.

Plus, it doesn’t help that, in a lot of ways, the one musical number Jem does solo is probably the strangest, and looks the most like the actual Jem cartoon. (Jem looks a lot like Lady Gaga in this scene, which just goes to show that we may already have a real life Jem in many ways). Just like the movie itself, Jerrica/Jem are stripped of their unique and silly charm for a bland version that is not nearly as interesting. Admittedly by the very end of the movie Jerrica/ Jem have become a character that possibly could be really interesting going forward because the movie at least finally figured out how to give a unique flair to her. Unfortunately, there is no way to prove that without a sequel, and even if that is true it doesn’t change the fact that Jerrica simply does not work as a character for virtually the entire movie.

You see that dead inside look? Basically sums up most of this movie.

There is a lot more that can be criticized about this movie. The pacing is ridiculous, and the movie completely falls apart by the end, when it makes Rio (Ryan Guzman) the ultimate owner of Starlight Records–thus completely reversing the power dynamic that existed in the cartoon between the two as a couple, a decision that is problematic as hell. The sisters don’t get enough screen time, the tone is always off, and the movie feels like it is trying to be too many movies at once, none of which work. Still, that doesn’t mean it was completely a disaster, and that is where things get interesting.

See, bad movies come in many different forms. Some are just bad, and watching them is simply painful. Some are misfires that fail to figure out how to properly utilize their full potential. Some are so bad that they become good in a weird way. Others have a weird combination of brilliance in a few places that get engulfed by the rest of the film being awful. Jem and the Holograms somehow manages to be all four. Yes, there are some cringeworthy moments in this movie, but there is a lot to actually like, too, even if the movie as a whole is garbage. The songs are catchy, and rather good for the most part. The costumes are actually fun and unique for the most part. Even though so much of the movie is generic, it retains a weird charm.

There’s one thing the movie mostly does well: updating Jem for the modern world. One of the bigger problems Jem faced was trying to bring in a new audience to go along with the nostalgic fans. Most of the people that were really fans of Jem are now be in their late 30s to mid-40s, which is simply not an audience you can rely on completely for your ticket sales, especially considering Jem is meant for younger audiences. So to try and draw those younger people in, Jem brought social media into the show’s world. Various Internet videos are used to good effect throughout. Some add context to scenes, some provide an emotional kick, and some actually help score the scene. This last one is where things get really interesting. Using these videos to help build the score adds a uniqueness to the soundtrack that is otherwise missing from most of the movie. In fact, one of the biggest problems is the movie’s refusal to commit to doing this more.

The one exception to this technique is near the end of the film, when fans use internet videos to express their love for Jem, and what her music has meant to them. A lot of these videos feel like either love letters to the original Jem cartoon that are being used for the movie, or ones specifically made by this movie to laud itself. Even though the music in this film is fun to listen to, it doesn’t necessarily feel as inspirational as the movie wants us to think it is. Between that and the movie’s more generic version of Jem, the video reactions seem disingenuous. The intent is good, but like many aspects of the film, the execution is flawed.

But all of my criticisms and analysis might be pointless, for one simple reason: this film cost five million dollars. That’s how much its budget was. By Hollywood’s standards, that is almost nothing. (Yes, the ridiculousness of that statement annoys me as well, but that doesn’t make it less true.) So even if the film spent two to three times that on marketing and other non-production costs, it is not very hard for this film to prove profitable. Things haven’t started well for it, as Jem made only about $1.3 million this past opening weekend, which is kind of a big deal because it opened in over 2,400 theatres–the fourth worst opening for a film in more than 2,000 theatres of all time, and the worst for a film playing in more than 2,400 theatres. This is bad. Like, embarrassingly bad. The film tallied about $547 per theatre. On top of that, Jem has been savaged by critics. Things have not gone well for this movie.

All of that really doesn’t matter, though, because the film still only cost five million dollars. There is still a good chance the movie will make that back in box office returns, and an even better chance that this is one of the rare films where the DVD and Blu-Ray sales will make a huge difference. This past weekend was about as crowded as can be, with a bunch of new releases and a lot of popular holdovers. Combine this with a mostly subpar marketing campaign, and it is not that shocking that no one bothered to see this movie. Non-critics who saw the movie actually liked it, and it has the feel of a movie that may slowly gain a cult following over the years, kind of like the Scott Pilgrim movie did (although that movie is actually amazing, but that’s an entire other discussion).

I guess this doesn’t look terrible. You could certainly build on it.

What does all this mean? Despite all of its problems, there is a really good chance that there could a be a sequel. The money might just make too much sense. What makes this interesting is that the sequel probably has like a 25% chance of actually being the movie people wanted in the first place– by the end of the film, the tedious origin story is over, Jerrica/Jem is finally somewhat interesting, Jon Chu is a way better director than was apparent here (maybe he just had an off-movie), and most of all, any sequel would include the Misfits. This is a really big deal, not only because the Misfits were hugely popular in the original show, but also because the style of their one scene in the movie is exactly how the entire movie should have felt, so there is a strong possibility that an entire movie with them would shift in a weirder and sillier direction, one the first movie sorely needed. This is all speculation, though, and it’s more likely that if the same creative team were brought back, they would make all the same mistakes again.

So what exactly should be learned from Jem and the Holograms? I could say that the lesson is, nostalgia is good and all, but it doesn’t work that well if you don’t understand the property. I could also say that trying to make a movie that would be aimed at children but mainly appeal to their 40-something-year-old parents is not really the best business strategy. I could even say it shows how a poor release day choice and terrible marketing can doom good movies, but will especially doom not so good movies. But no. What we really should learn is, if you loved something as a child, hope that Hasbro wasn’t a part of it. Otherwise, expect it to be ruined at some point, because Hasbro will wring every last dollar it can from a property until they can toss it aside and move onto something new.

How would I rate it?

It doesn’t even really matter in this case, but, sure. It’s like 1 and a half out of 4 stars. This movie is bad, but there are just enough moments that are actually good that it gets a little higher mark, but let me repeat, this film is bad.

That’s it for this special edition of The Anticipated. Check back soon, when I will bring my thoughts on the next James Bond Spectre. Will it be a worthy follow-up to Skyfall? Find out next time. Until then I have a robot scavenger hunt to complete.