2015 was a pretty banner year for women in science fiction and horror. Whether it was Katniss, Furiosa, Rey, Jay from It Follows, or any of a host of others, 2015 was the year that proved once and for all that big blockbuster movies starring women protagonists aren't just great, they make HUGE bank.
But there's one thing we missed out on in 2015, a part of genre filmmaking that almost had its day in the sun but then failed completely to live up to its potential -- the magical girl. While, on TV, Sailor Moon was enjoying its successful relaunch, her sci-fi sister had one of the biggest movie flops of all time -- Jerrica Benton, aka Jem.
And, yes, Jem and the Holograms qualifies as science fiction. One of the main characters is Synergy, an advanced A.I. that can make you see anything she wants. Sure, Jem and the Holograms used Synergy's abilities for fashion and music and the show was also very much an animated soap opera, but it was one that included an undeniably sci-fi element.
While we're on the subject of the original cartoon, it's certainly not controversial to say it was often better in concept than in execution. A lot of the episodes can be boiled down to "Jem and the Holograms want to do a thing, rival band The Misfits try to mess up the thing, but Jem and the Holograms somehow manage to do the thing anyway." What people loved about the show (and, gosh, does this show have fans) wasn't the plots so much as the upbeat and zany characters, the colorful fashion and the music. Even if you never really watched the show, you can still probably hear Britta Phillips' voice singing the theme while reading this.
Which all combined creates quite a challenge -- how do you recapture the feeling of a show that was, in many ways, less than the sum of its parts but still make it great and recognizable?
It's not impossible. I would contend that the Jem and the Holograms comic from IDW (see image above) does exactly that. The pieces are all there (Jem, The Misfits, Rio, Starlight), but it's updated to suit modern sensibilities. For one thing, the comic saw what was pretty obvious -- the original show has both a substantially female and often queer fanbase. So IDW wisely picked a largely female team to bring the new comic to life. Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell understood that the readers they wanted to attract would want to see themselves reflected in the pages, so they included a range of body types, races and sexualities. They also, wisely, got M. Victoria Robado to do their colors, the vibrancy of which instantly brought back that recognizability that, yes, this is still Jem. Throw in that same focus on family, friendship, fashion, glitter, fame, and you get a Jem comic that appeals to old fans and new.
But comic books are one thing. It may not be easy to make a good Jem comic, but it is easier to transition from animation to comics than it is to live action. And, gosh, does the Jem and the Holograms movie fail spectacularly.
If we think of the Jem comic as a promise to the fans, then the Jem and the Holograms movie broke that promise.
Hold onto your hats, folks, because I'm going to spoil a lot of the Jem and the Holograms story, so consider yourself warned in case you were planning on seeing it. There. It's only January but I already know that's the most sarcastic thing I'll say this year.
Believe it or not, the production team for the Jem movie did seem like their hearts were as in the most right place they could have been. It seemed as though John M. Chu and Ryan Landels did the research and included most of the individual parts from the original show.
But making a Jem movie isn't like putting together a car -- just because you have the pieces you need, doesn't mean you have the love in your heart to make them sing together. Chu and Landels clearly don't love Jem, but to their credit, they did have a plan B for that -- they asked fans to submit videos on YouTube about why they love Jem and then included clips of those videos in the movie, itself. It was as if they were thinking, "if we can't love the story and characters ourselves, why not inject the film with a little love from the people who do"?
As interesting an idea as that was, there's a very good reason the Jem and the Holograms movie was pulled after only a dismal two weeks.
Let's start with why people didn't go see the movie, first, before we talk about all the myriad ways it didn't live up to Jem's potential. I think what initially turned people off was the boring visual style. All the colors were so washed-out and generic looking. Jem and the Holograms explodes with color, it's sometimes garrish with color. That's a big part of what makes the characters stand out -- color. There's such an absence of color throughout most of the Jem movie that it might as well be sepia-toned.
The drab visual aesthetic is, quite literally, just the surface, though. Digging deeper into the movie, there's a lot more to dissect as to why the movie didn't just fail to make money, but why it failed to be the best Jem it could be for the world we live in now.
Funnily enough, the movie starts Jerrica in much the same place that the comic does -- introverted, extremely shy, and unwilling to show off her gifts as a composer and performer publicly. The difference is in the resolution of that problem. Whereas the comic and the cartoon use Synergy as a convention to help Jerrica find that confidence and glamour to become Jem, the movie sees one of Jerrica's sisters, Kimber, upload a video of Jerrica singing. That video immediately goes viral, which lands all the sisters with a music contract at Starlight Records.
Now, leaving aside the problem with using a real world convention, YouTube, to accomplish something, overnight stardom, which would never EVER happen in the real world now, the real problem is where the control is. In the cartoon and the comic, Jerric and her sisters control their story most of the time, but in the movie, it's the mixture of the whirlwind online success and record producer, Erica Raymond, which drive the story.
Jerrica, Kimber, Shana, and Aja don't really start to earn their success or control their own narrative until the third act -- that's a big flaw when we're supposed to accept that these girls are the best and most talented at what they do. Synergy gamely assists Jem and the Holograms, but Erica Raymond controls them, tells them what to play, what to wear, who to be. The whole thing is very paint-by-numbers and not very Jem.
And let's talk a little more about Synergy, that gorgeous bit of A.I. that gives Jem her sci-fi style. She's basically a robot woman with thoughts and feelings in the original cartoon. In the comic, she's actually developing some pathos of her very own. But in the Jem movie, Synergy is just a little singing robot (seen above). Worse, instead of helping Jerrica begin her journey to realizing her own potential, movie Synergy takes Jerrica and her sisters on a very boring series of quests to unlock a video of Jerrica's dead dad basically saying "You can do it, champ!"
Gone is the Synergy with her own sense of agency, and in her place is an Eve (from Wall-e) knockoff that makes Jerrica's story not about her own growth, but her attachment to a male role model. Again, that ain't what Jem and the Holograms is about.
Plus, and this is a personal quibble, the Misfits don't even show up until the end! So, all the conflict of the story falls on to Erica Raymond, who is just an ego in a suit and lacks all of the excitement and color the Misfits could've brought.
What I'm getting at is this -- in 2015, the year where Star Wars, one of the oldest, whitest and most male stories of all time, turned into a space adventure starring a black guy and a woman who's strong with the Force, there was no excuse for Jem to trade bold choices for a faded, boring, by-the-numbers imposter.
Jem and the Holograms, at its very core, is a transformational narrative about women using their ecstatic art that celebrates diverse beauty through fashion and music to make the world better. Jem is Beyonce meets Sailor Moon, and her world is vibrant and exciting.
While Rey scavanges the sands of Jakku, Katniss defies the dystopic Panem, and Furiosa triumphs over a dictator, Jem could and should have been saving the world with dazzling fashion, rocking hair and bubblegum pop that makes the whole planet sing with joy. Because we need women heroes like that, too. We need to celebrate makeup and pastels and glitter and all those sparkling girly things as much as we celebrate down-in-the-muck, boot-stomping lady butt-kickers. And we need to do that in science fiction and fantasy just as much as we do in any other genre.
Where did the dark-skinned Aja go? Why was every girl a stick-thin copy of all the others? Why was everyone 100% heterosexual? The comic understands that omissions like these are both egregious and offensive. The movie should have known who its fans were and acknowledged the world they (and we) live in. Instead it came straight out of a fictional Straightsville, USA that would make even the Friends version of NYC blush with how predominantly and embarrassingly white Jem is. And before I hear one person talk about the need to find a wider audience or not upset the sensibilities of children or their parents, please remember that the Jem cartoon and comic are for children. That very gay Jem comic? Yeah, it's for sale in the all-ages section of the comic store I shop at as we speak.
Jem should have done all these things and more, but it didn't, and for that it is, unquestionably, my biggest disappointment of 2015. Please let 2016 be the year where we learn from the Jem movie's mistakes and, rather than shying away from characters like her and her sisters, truly embrace them unapologetically.