A virtual advertisement for YouTube as the vehicle for everyday people to express their inner selves — and, in the process, to achieve stardom and communion with likeminded souls (i.e. their fans) — “Jem and the Holograms” updates the popular ‘80s cartoon in ways both hyper-contemporary and laughably hackneyed. Largely discarding that kid’s show’s supernatural elements in favor of lame viral-video dreams about making it big while staying loyal to one’s self and family, this dreary origin story isn’t so much an adaptation as a reconfiguration. Far from the rock-star-superhero fantasy that the original “Jem” peddled, this big-screen iteration instead imagines that there’s nothing as great, or as unifying, as posting clips of yourself on the Internet, and waiting for everyone to immediately fawn all over you as a genuine voice of a generation.
That’s what happens to Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples), a girl living in small-town California with her biological sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) and her surrogate siblings Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau), all under the roof of her Aunt Bailey (a monotonous Molly Ringwald). “Jem and the Holograms” is lazily vague about the “store” that Aunt Bailey runs, the reasons she’s about to lose her house, or the fate of Jerrica’s mother (who’s never mentioned) and inventor father (Barnaby Carpenter). The latter passed away in some unexplained way, but not before leaving Jerrica with an unfinished robot named Synergy that looks like two conjoined white orbs riding a unicycle, and which comes to life, bleeping and blipping and showing holographic home videos of Jerrica and her dad like some sort of homemade R2D2 — or, visually speaking, BB8 — once Jerrica and company head out to Los Angeles.
In name if not form, Synergy is one of many nods to the film’s cartoon roots. However, as the sole science-fiction element in a saga that’s otherwise ostensibly set in the real world, it fits uncomfortably into the action, which kicks into gear once Kimber uploads a clip of Jerrica playing a generic acoustic-guitar song in make-up and wig, and going by her dad’s nickname for her, “Jem,” and the performance becomes an overnight Internet sensation. Soon, she’s being swept away to Los Angeles courtesy of Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), the president of music mega-corp Starlight Enterprises, where she’s transformed into a flashy superstar in “truly outrageous” outfits and disguises, her actual identity kept from the public in order to enhance her sense of mystery.
Director Jon M. Chu (“Step Up 2 the Streets,” “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never”) intersperses the proceedings with grating clips of Jem’s admirers waxing rhapsodic about the liberating, be-who-you-wanna-be effect her music has on their lives, thereby amplifying the film’s overarching portrait of online content-sharing and social media as tools of cultural unification. “Jem and the Holograms” casts its heroine as a symbolic representation of the idea that everyone is equally special in their own unique way. It’s a contention in harmony with YouTube’s current promotional campaign for its just-like-you “stars,” but one that’s disputed by the consuming been-here, done-that blandness of this tale, and its protagonist. Resembling a slightly perkier Kristen Stewart, Peeples embodies Jem as a one-dimensional good girl thrust into the spotlight. Her Hologram bandmates are an even less substantial bunch, given that each of them is bestowed with a singular trait at the outset (Kimber is always posting stuff on Facebook and Twitter! Shana is into fashion! Aja loves, um, something!) and then relegated to functional plot devices.
When not following Jem on an absurd scavenger hunt to find clues left behind by her father, “Jem and the Holograms” provides the singer with a love interest in Erica’s son Rio (Ryan Guzman), and an enemy in Erica, who — played by Lewis with strutting and sneering villainy — is intent on having Jem ditch the Holograms for a solo career. The ensuing fame-vs.-family dynamics are hopelessly familiar, and relegate the drama to an old rise-to-the-top fable gussied up in new clothes — even as Ryan Landels’ screenplay attempts to placate die-hard fans via intermittent shout-outs to the original cartoon. In keeping with the animated series, Chu stages Jem’s forgettable musical numbers (one clearly aping the style of Sia) as music-video montages that, along with the song’s lyrics, help propel the plot forward. Otherwise, though, the film’s allusions are merely superficial gestures, meaning that ‘Jem’ has less in common with its neon-drenched ‘80s source material than with the real-life Internet-to-red-carpet trajectory of Justin Bieber — a similarly generic teen idol with moves dully modeled on superior artistic predecessors. [C]