In conventional love stories, boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, girl falls for boy, and some pivotal plot point happens. Unless there’s a sequel, we assume that afterward, they live happily and inconsequentially ever after. But, what if in the future, it’s boy designs girl? In Blade Runner 2049, Officer K (Ryan Gosling) lives with his AI hologram companion Joi, who was manufactured by Wallace Corp and tailored as the perfect companion. Her product tagline is, "Everything you want to see. Everything you want to hear.”
Spoilers ahead for Blade Runner 2049.
Screenwriter Michael Green told The Thrillist, "I knew we'd be telling the story of his character's aspiration toward ascension, so since we are defined by what we love, what he loved needed a story as well. Now, if that story is merely a projection of his fantasies combined with excellent programming, or if she is a ‘special’ version of herself who became something more because she was involved with someone unique — that's something I hope people struggle with. When he sees the advertisement for a different Joi at the end… it hurts my feelings. And a Blade Runner film should hurt one's feelings."
“A Blade Runner film should hurt one's feelings."
K is an artificial person known as a replicant, but he isn’t immune to loneliness and longing. And though he and Joi seem to love each other, the tragedy lies in the illusion. If something has the illusion of being meaningful, is it still meaningful? The idea of what’s “real” and what’s not is blurred in Blade Runner 2049’s love story, but it’s clear that K takes comfort from Joi’s presence, and that she makes him feel like an individual. She gives him a human name, and with it, some sense of purpose and belief that he’s more than what he’s been designed to do. From an outside perspective, their relationship is an illusion, but it's real to K — which means it’s real, period.
Like Theodore, the main protagonist in Spike Jonze's acclaimed Her, K projects his desires onto an AI-powered woman named Samantha, but he still derives real emotion and positive personal meaning from their relationship. It's a paradox: he’s feeling what the AI is designed to make him feel, but the feelings still have meaning. And even if his relationship with Samantha, or K’s with Joi, is based on something artificial and designed, they still have lasting real-world consequences. K’s love gives him a purpose that drives his choices in ways with long-term ramifications for many other people.
There’s a kind of underlying hope in Blade Runner 2049 that Joi is growing to be more than her programming — that she loves K of her own agency, and isn't an empty fantasy. Her caring behavior when he’s hurt, or when her existence might threaten his, suggests that she’s devoted to him. When her data is destroyed, K realizes how she defined him. The ascension Green references comes as a surprise to him, but it leads him to commit to the higher purpose of saving Deckard and reuniting him with his daughter. K molds Joi into what he wants her to be, but she molds him in return. They both seem to be moving beyond their programming, because of their love for each other. Their relationship — between an android boy and a holographic girl, each looking to be something more — makes for one of the most thought-provoking pairings in recent science fiction.