“Oh I see, you don’t like real girls.”
This might come as a surprise since I claim to be such a big nerd and sci-fi fan, but I’m generally pretty bad at keeping up-to-date with films. Until last month, I had never seen the original Blade Runner film, let alone the recently released sequel. Now I can say that I’ve finally seen both, and I loved them. I was impressed by the soundtrack, the colour palettes and lighting, and the pacing of both films, and found the stories they told thought-provoking, smart and imaginative. And most thought-provoking of all in Blade Runner 2049 was the relationship between the main character, K, and his holographic girlfriend, Joi, which totally captured my imagination and set my mind spinning with thoughts of what it means to be human.
Warning: Major spoilers ahead.
K (or to be precise KD9-3.7) is a new model of replicant, designed to obey, and employed to terminate fugitive “older models”. Because of this, he’s an outcast, labelled “Skinner” and “Skinjob” by his neighbours, and has no friends or companions, save for Joi.
We’re first introduced to Joi when K returns home from work. As he arrives in his apartment, we hear him calling out to someone – presumably his partner – and hear responses coming from the kitchen. He offers the voice a drink, pouring two, then drinking them both. There’s a strange, haunting sadness to this scene, as gradually we realise something’s not quite right about his actions, nor the eerie, slightly artificial voice.
When Joi appears and it first becomes obvious that she isn’t a physical person but a hologram, we feel a pang of sympathy for K’s loneliness, but as the film progresses, we realise that maybe K doesn’t see it this way: to him, Joi is real.
“You are real for me.”
When we think about Joi as a product, manufactured by the Wallace Corporation and presumably sold to men and replicants for companionship, our minds probably jump to something pretty unpleasant. We think about creepy sex dolls, and women being objectified and commodified, sold in exchange for money, owned and used like any product. And while this is likely be the fate of some incarnations of the Joi hologram, this isn’t what I see in the relationship between Joi and K.
The relationship is all the more interesting for the fact that Joi isn’t simply a possession. Their interactions are tender, down to the delicate way K moves to position his hands as if touching Joi’s skin. Joi might be a product designed to placate the masses, but her relationship with K appears to be more than that.
This makes those moments of disconnect when Joi’s image falters and we’re reminded that she isn’t “real” all the more heartbreaking. The first time this happens is when her image freezes so that a message can be played, while she and K are moving as though kissing in the rain. K leaves Joi frozen in place in the rain, and we remember that even though she can now go wherever K takes her, thanks to the “Emanator” he bought her as a gift, she has no existence outside of K.
“I’ve been inside you. Not so much there as you think.”
Another moment when we remember Joi’s limitations is during the scene when Joi invites a prostitute, Mariette, to have sex with K in her place. This scene is really unusual and impressive – all without ever showing the viewers any sex itself. The scene is also interesting as it’s portrayed as a demonstration of Joi’s love for K. She wants to make sure he has what she can’t give him. But then again, of course she does, as her advertisement promises, she is “everything you want to see, Everything you want to hear”.
This brings us to the big question that haunts the film: is Joi and K’s relationship genuine, or is Joi simply programmed to know exactly what he wants to hear, and to be the perfect, supportive companion? And does that matter?
On the one hand, as we’re reminded at several points throughout the film, Joi is not unique. She’s a product, and we see versions of her across the city, including the giant blue-haired hologram who after Joi’s death, tells K he looks like “a good Joe” – Joe being the name K’s Joi gives K when she starts to believe that K is a hybrid, that he might be “special”. This makes us wonder whether Joi’s support and love for K, which seemed so sweet and genuine, was really just pre-programmed, and whether any version of Joi would be exactly the same.
And maybe we can ask this same question of Rachael. When we hear the playback of their first meeting as part of K’s investigation. the suggestion is made that maybe Rachael was made to seduce Deckard. There’s an interesting symmetry to this scene.
“Did it never occur to you that is why you were summoned in the first place? Designed to do nothing short of fall for her then and there? All to create that single perfect specimen. That is, if you were designed. Love, or mathematical precision?”
But at the same time as these hints make me doubt the genuine nature of their relationship, there’s a spark of hope. The fear K felt for Joi’s life when Joi told him to transfer her “consciousness” (if we can call it that) to the Emanator, and the pain and loss he felt when the Emanator (and therefore Joi) was destroyed, were real. And if a replicant, a synthetic human engineered to obey and serve, can have this depth of feeling, then why can’t a hologram? The lives of both are in theory pre-destined by their programming; the only thing separating the two is the existence of a physical body. And that’s never really been the thing that makes someone human.
As humans’ lives, personalities, and feelings are guided by their DNA, so are K’s and Joi’s by their programming. And as K grows through his experiences and finds himself becoming more human through these, perhaps Joi does too. Maybe neither of them are “special”, but even wondering whether they might be seems intrinsically human to me.
“Four symbols make a man: A, T, G & C. I am only two: 1 and 0.”