Made on the cheap, the live-action adaptation of the popular ’80s cartoon Jem And The Holograms often resembles a mockbuster of itself, perhaps titled Jam And The Horoglams and distributed directly to gas stations. Applying the style (or lack thereof) of his earlier Justin Bieber: Never Say Never to marginally more fictional material, director Jon M. Chu shrouds pop singer Jem—formerly a record company executive, now a mystery-solving suburban teen with a robot sidekick—behind celebrity testimonials and scads of non-original footage, most of it sourced from YouTube videos. Factor in a plot that involves wills, contracts, and a futuristic technology that is never actually shown, as well as a setting of generic real-estate catalog interiors and suspiciously small concert venues, and the result begins to look a bit like the Hasbro equivalent of Atlas Shrugged, Part III. Its one saving grace is that Chu’s direction is so wildly inconsistent that it manages to produce a handful of genuinely gorgeous images alongside all of the cruddy ones.
Aubrey Peeples stars as 18-year-old Jerrica Benton, who performs tuneless imitations of pop music as her pink-haired alter-ego, Jem. In the animated version, this transformation was accomplished with the help of holographic projectors concealed in star-shaped earrings; presumably for reasons of budget, the movie just has her put on a wig. Having become a global sensation on the strength of a viral video that features her glumly strumming an acoustic guitar in Aladdin Sane makeup, Jerrica travels to Los Angeles with her backing band, which consists of her sister and her aunt’s two foster daughters, and which, in true modern-day origin story fashion, isn’t called The Holograms until the last minute of the movie. They are there on the invitation of music mogul Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), who believes that keeping Jem’s true identity secret is the key to her mystique, despite the fact that almost everyone in Jem And The Holograms knows that she’s Jerrica.
Gaps of logic are not unwarranted in an adaptation of a Reagan-era cartoon originally produced by a toy company; however, that does not excuse the fact that Jem And The Holograms often looks like shit. Chu’s work on the Step Up movies helped revitalize the American dance film, but dance is just about the only thing he can direct, and Jem And The Holograms are not dancers. What viewers get is a nearly two-hour musical with a total of five musical numbers, paced with the excitement of someone looking for their keys, that consists in part of rushed, indifferent handheld close-ups, occasionally overlaid with motion-tracked pop-ups of social media text, and clips of YouTubers talking about the animated series. This air of apathy is made bizarre by the plotting, which starts with a daughter losing a father and ends with a son having his mother escorted away by security, and has Jerrica deciphering clues with the help of her bandmates and a bleep-bloopy ball-bot that responds to whistle commands.
The underlying idea of musicals is that song is an expression, but the generic music of Jem And The Holograms doesn’t come from anywhere, and with the exception of that ostensibly career-launching viral video, it never feels like it’s being sung or performed by the people on screen. It doesn’t help that the music is also boring. Chu, who produced the film with horror impresario Jason Blum and Justin Bieber manager Scooter Braun, reportedly opted for a low budget to ensure full creative control, but Jem shows absolutely no control and only the most fitful and frustrating sparks of unmotivated creativity. There is a beautiful scene here of the main characters swimming underwater in slow motion, lit by the flashing neon lights of the Santa Monica Pier’s Ferris wheel, and it seems to come from a completely different, more stylized universe—perhaps the one where Jem And The Holograms belong.