Jem and the Holograms Isn't Even Close to Being the Worst Movie Ever Made

To reiterate a question I posed a couple weeks ago: what’s the worst film ever made? No, it’s not Pixels or Fantastic Four.  It  also continues to not be Jem and the Holograms, which opened last Friday, Oct. 23, and is already considered a major financial flop, having earned back less than half of its tiny budget over the weekend. It’s not the best film ever made by a long shot, and it’s far from perfect, but it doesn’t have to be flawless to be worthy or entertaining, and it certainly doesn’t deserve the hate it’s been getting this past year.


Jem and the Holograms screened too late for inclusion in SF Weekly's current print edition, so I did something I rarely do: I went to see a movie on opening weekend. I’ve never watched the original cartoon and have no emotional connection to the franchise, but some of my favorite movies in recent years have been about struggling female-led or female-heavy bands (the title band in God Help the Girl, the Rainbooms in My Little Pony: Equestria Girls  Rainbow Rocks, and an argument can be made for Sex Bob-Omb in my favorite film of this decade, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), so I’ve been curious about Jem on that level alone. The way the Internet got into a mouth-frothing rage long before the movie came out also made me inherently sympathetic toward it; when I stated in my Manos: The Hands of Fate article a couple weeks ago that Jem is not the worst movie ever made, it caused a blip on someone’s Google Alert, because they schooled me over Twitter.

Jem and the Holograms
is the story of how an introverted young woman named Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples) becomes a viral sensation as a mysterious, pink-wigged singer called Jem, and her struggles to keep things together with her sisters and fellow bandmates Kimber (Stefanie Scott), Shana (Aurora Perrineau), and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko), all while navigating the strangeness of her sudden fame and the machinations of Machiavellian record executive Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis). Though there are some light sci-fi elements, the story remains largely grounded and based in the real world, focusing on the characters rather than the spectacle. The primary fantasy element is a robot called Synergy built by Jem’s deceased father. Synergy’s technology is a heightened reality that doesn’t break the story’s sense of happening right now, mostly limited to being able to project 3D holograms and communicate via music.

How much any of this relates to the original TV show, I neither know nor care; I recognized a shout-out early in the film when Kimber says Jerrica looks “Outrageous!” after putting on a pink wig and a matching jacket with horrendous shoulder pads, but only because it reminded me of the cover of Shout! Factory’s recent Jem and the Holograms: The Truly Outrageous Complete Series box set. Looking at that page now, I see the words “It’s Showtime, Synergy!” So apparently Synergy was a thing on the TV show. I did not know that, and it also doesn’t matter, at all.

On a thematic level, Jem and the Holograms reminds me of another recent but far more costly financial flop, Brad Bird’s underrated Tomorrowland. They’re both earnest, positive films about how technology can be a force for good rather than what it is right now, and while their reach exceeds their grasp, Tomorrowland and Jem and the Holograms were noble failures at worst. I suspect they’ll get the respect they deserve in the long run, because they at least tried to do some good. 

There are some interesting emotional themes at work, particularly how different kinds of mothers deal with raising children after their father passes away, and the bonds of family regardless of blood (Aja and Shana are both mixed race, though that’s never a plot point). The film uses its meager $5 million budget to its advantage: If it often feels like it was shot on a commercially available digital video camera, that’s also the point, since so much of the story is driven by the Internet. 

One particularly touching scene involves a montage of Instagram video testimonials of kids talking about how much Jerrica becoming Jem has inspired them, including a gay teen talking about being bullied. (There are a few openly queer characters, including Esteban (Justin Alastair), whom the teenage girls sitting behind me on Saturday night simply adored.) Indeed, the degree of love that the fictional character of Jem gets from the Internet in the movie is deeply ironic compared to the vitriol the film has gotten from the real Internet long before anyone even saw the movie.

I don’t pretend to be above getting cranky about movies I haven’t seen. For example, in SF Weekly’s Summer Movie Preview this past May, I got into a shouting match with Terminator: Genesis Genisys:

But that was just for a larf (and an homage to the “Fuck you, Kurt Vonnegut!” scene in Back to School), and it was about a $155 million film in which Schwarzenegger’s salary was surely many times Jem’s $5 million. Genisys was arguably far less respectful of its source material than Jem, but didn't raise nearly as much anger, possibly because it was about men with guns and shit blowing up and had that one mediocre actress from Game of Thrones that all the straight boys are into. 

And hooboy, the anger that Jem and the Holograms raised from the beginning was just breathtaking in its pointlessness. When the second trailer dropped back in August, that nerd-culture blog I used to contribute to commented on the fact that Synergy was in the trailer thusly: “It looks like they’ve kept the [Synergy] concept and taken a massive dump on it, just like everything else,” concluding with, “Don’t believe me? Watch the new trailer and try not to throw stuff at the screen.” Because throwing things at the screen is a totally reasonable reaction when a movie adaptation of television series from 30 years earlier doesn’t keep everything exactly the way it was, right? Fun fact: television is different from movies, particularly 1980s television and 2010s movies, and animation is different from live action. You cannot reasonably expect there to not be changes — unless your blog relies on nerd-rage clickbait to keep the lights on. (So how does SF Weekly's mostly rage-free Exhibitionist blog keep its lights on? I have no idea.)

The lack of Synergy in the first trailer from May was among many points of contentions in IGN’s rather famous takedown of that trailer. To be clear about the numbers, it’s a nine-minute rant about the two-minute trailer for a two-hour film that wouldn’t be released for another five months, so of course it makes perfect sense for Ms. Cornet to get upset if every single element from the  “blasphemous bastardization” which she wouldn’t see for another half-year is not represented. Among other things, it displays a huge ignorance about how movie promotion works: they never give away everything in the first trailer, which are historically called “teaser” trailers for that very reason.

Consider also her hapless co-host Mr. Vejvoda, who says that “he doesn’t get anything about” the trailer, then adds that “I never watched Jem,” and yet continues to agree that the trailer is “a crock of you-know-what.” So, he’s never watched the show, but he can’t make sense of the trailer embedded at the top of this post. Seriously, what’s not to get? The story looks pretty straightforward — unless you’re expected to get angry about it. There’s a bandwagon effect at work as well; when something becomes conventional wisdom, it’s easier just to go along with it, and legend gets printed rather than the truth. (See also the patently false “odd-numbered curse” regarding Star Trek movies, which belies the fact that Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is a better film than Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.)

Look, I’m not completely naïve. The Internet used to run on cat videos, but now it’s powered by outrage, which is why we’ve been graced with such ugly spectacles as #GamerGate followed by Men’s Rights Activists getting pissy about the presence of so many female characters in Mad Max: Fury Road, and as we speak, white supremacists boycotting Star Wars: The Force Awakens because of the involvement of Black and Jewish people. And what I’ve been talking about here all boils down to entitlement, the way the relative anonymity of the Internet allows people to vent their spleens in the worst way possible just because a piece of entertainment (which they’re well within their rights to simply ignore) isn’t precisely how they think it should be.

In a keynote that he gave at the Film Independent Forum in L.A. this past Saturday night right around the time that I was among the nine people at the 7:25 p.m. showing of his film at the Metreon, Jem director John M. Chu said: “I get [Jem] fans sending me hate mail, I get death threats, I get racist remarks — it's a really fun business.” What the ever-loving fuck, Internet? This is not okay. There’s never a good reason ever send a stranger hate mail or death threats or racial slurs, and especially because you’re angry that they made a PG-rated family film that you haven’t seen. I think that for a lot of people, Internet outrage is just something they do for fun, and that’s why we can’t have nice things.

There was simply no good reason for the anger toward Jem and the Holograms. None. Period. No matter what your feelings about the original show, the backlash was needless and damaging, and just because women also carried the pitchforks doesn’t mean that it wasn’t blatantly misogynistic. (Consider your Megyn Kellys, your Carly Fiorinas, your Ann Coulters.) And if precedent can be trusted, it’s going to result in more sexism in Hollywood.

Folks, we need more movies with female protagonists, we especially need more movies about young women becoming self-actualized, and studios are nervous enough about casting women in lead roles as it is. If the deeply stupid backlash against Jem and its subsequent financial failure results in far fewer female-empowerment movies being made — let alone live-action PG-rated family films, which have been an endangered species for years — then you've done a bad, bad thing, Internet.

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