Blade Runner 2049 and the Role of Joi in a Joyless World

We examine the importance of Ana de Armas' Joi in Blade Runner 2049, and what her relationship with Ryan Gosling represents.

Ana de Armas in Blade Runner 2049
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

This article contains major Blade Runner 2049 spoilers.

Rain flashes across her luminous face with the kind of relentless oppression only reserved for noir and the sci-fi films that appropriate its nihilism. In the midst of a moonless, starless, and, yes, joyless Los Angeles night, the only glow in the sky emanates from her empty yet inviting olive eyes—a vacant visage that towers 150 feet above an abandoned urban purgatory. Her name is Joi and she is an illusion in every sense, right down to her holographic countenance made up of ones and zeroes. But in the world of Blade Runner 2049, nobody is perfect, and she is both the fantasy and reality of Ridley Scott’s haunted future made flesh.

Digitally speaking, of course.

Thirty-five years after Ridley Scott’s beautifully horrifying dream of a synthetic tomorrow flopped at the box office, Denis Villeneuve has conjured a potent and worthy successor to that alluring bleakness. The fact that it too is struggling with entrancing viewers in its drenched-street charms is also a shame, for Blade Runner 2049 is a lyrical reverie that not only builds on the world of Scott’s cult classic, but adds its own layered miseries atop that initial grim prophecy. As temperatures rise and scientific advancement makes true artificial intelligence all but inevitable, the future where Harrison Ford’s Deckard pounded the pavement with replicants’ skulls appears quaint, and the one with Ryan Gosling’s “K” making love to a ghostly siren is ambiguously optimistic.

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Indeed, while Blade Runner 2049 is a detective story about an artificial man discovering an esoteric conspiracy, the true meaning of this world, where humans and their inhuman doppelgangers mingle, is made concrete by a love story that’s entirely open to interpretation. A seeming narrative tangent, the relationship between a replicant and a third generation of A.I. allows this series to go to places other sci-fi narratives about robots could only dream about. Assuming, of course, that androids dream.

The first time audiences meet Joi (Ana de Armas), she is filling a gaping hole in K’s soul. K’s superior, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), remarks that her replicant-killing subordinate, who is himself a replicant, gets along just fine without having a soul. However, you’ll have to forgive Lt. Joshi for her dismissive ignorance—she’s only human. In fact, save for the eternal question mark around Rick Deckard’s origins, she is the only major character in the film who is definitely human. Whereas the Homo sapien species remained understandably disturbed by the burgeoning independence in their robotic slaves in the original Blade Runner, identity has become fluid in the 30 years since the first film’s 2019 setting. There is still a caste system, which is at the heart of K and Joi’s relationship, but even as indentured servants, the replicants have inherited the Earth… truly so, as all the rich humans have long vacated that dump to live off-world.

In a narrative landscape where no major character is unquestionably human, the distinction between what is real and artificial—which was the crux of Deckard and Roy Batty’s arcs in the original film—has so long blurred that it’s become moot. Androids are a fact of life, and they are alive, even if their easily mistaken human superiors continuously view them as soulless automatons. To think otherwise is unfettered prejudice when our protagonist can clearly find solace for the emptiness of his existence in an intriguingly old-fashioned romance.

Hence how viewers discover Joi as the culmination of everything K needs: a post-World War II housewife. Technically a product projected from a console in his barren apartment on the corner of what should be a demilitarized zone, she is there to literally brighten his home. Switching attire from Lauren Bacall to Bond girl on a whim, Joi lights K’s cigarette and allows him to pretend his bowl of bleh is really a lovingly homemade steak dinner.

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It is all a lie that resembles what K needs in life, which is only compounded on repeat viewing if audiences note that they’ve seen Joi hidden throughout the film. By the end of the picture, the giant holographic billboard of a nude woman promising to be anything you want is impossible to miss, however early on in the film, before we meet the joy of K’s life, seeded in the periphery of frames are half-glimpsed proclamations of “Joi,” and the promise of contentment offered by the Wallace Corporation—the malevolent heirs to the original film’s Tyrell Corporation.

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As such, two valid readings of the relationship between Joi and K begin when she lights his cigarette, and within that paradox is the heart of the entire Blade Runner universe.

Joi is arguably the lie of technology. She’s a fleeting distraction meant to soften the meaninglessness of the lives of lower classes, which in Blade Runner 2049 are almost entirely robotic. Now several generations past the original film, with replicants able to live potentially forever, these robotic underlings suffer from loneliness and existential angst as much as humans, in spite of the baseline tests the LAPD performs to make sure their human-shaped appliances keep in line.

The irony of this scenario is that Blade Runner has reached the endpoint that keeps Elon Musk up at night. Beyond humans creating artificial intelligence, there is the increasing paranoia of what will happen when artificial intelligence begets itself? K is himself part of a newer series of replicants made by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the CEO of the Wallace Corporation who is likewise a replicant. Apparently a Nexus 8, the Tyrell replicants with an open-ended lifespan, Wallace has permanently enslaved his race by creating new obedient models that have made living off-world a paradise for humans.

But Wallace is unsatisfied with his assembly line of replicants, who are birthed in Tyrell’s old pyramid, which now resembles a skyscraper-sized womb, with watery lighting effects casting embryotic shadows on its walls. A man obsessed with the creation of life, Wallace wants his “angels,” subservient to his god complex, to populate the heavens by natural procreation. If replicants could birth children like humans, they would inevitably outpace the human race, and he could conceivably rule the universe with a workforce.

Curiously, this mirrors the premise of Ridley Scott’s far less successful Alien prequels where Michael Fassbender’s David attempts to play god with increasingly disastrous results in each film. Both franchises orbit the question of what artificial intelligence might look like when it is reproducing itself, and Blade Runner 2049 reaches a chilling alternative to the banal “and then they destroy the world” cliché. Wallace took over the world, alright, but as the immortal head of a corporate entity that looks to enslave the universe with his living products.

In this vein, Joi is a token meant to placate the masses, no different than the Roman Empire offering its citizenry bread and circuses. However, as this is the noir-obsessed Blade Runner, there is something appealingly antiquated about her post-war affectation. At least in K’s hands.

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A cynical reading could suggest everything Joi does in the film is a product’s programmed response and manipulation of a consumer. In her first scene, she confesses to K she has “cabin fever,” who in turn reveals he has bought his girlfriend a present. With the bonus that came with murdering another of his kind, K has purchased an accessory that allows Joi’s hologram to travel remotely from her console and to leave their ratty apartment. He’s a robot in love, spending his disposable income on a hologram.

Thus the way Joi unintentionally laments her closeted life could be construed as no different than iTunes asking you to upgrade it for the umpteenth time… and maybe pay a little more for the added perks of Apple Music. This cynicism regarding holograms is pervasive throughout Blade Runner 2049. Is she really in love with K, a man she eventually convinces to rename himself Joe, or is “Joe” just another joe who is being manipulated by his software? Just as how the bright lights of Coca Cola sugar water, Atari game machines, and bemusing Soviet ballerinas are used to punctuate a skyline and conceal the fact that the characters live in a wasteland, is the inclusion of Joi’s stark silhouette any different? Her creators don’t think so.

During the course of the picture, there are allusions to the intoxicating appeal of using technology as an opioid. When K/Joe first listens to a recording of Deckard meeting Rachael (Sean Young) from 30 years ago, his Wallace counter, the also enigmatic Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), discards Joe’s suggestion that Rachael has genuine feelings for Deckard. When he says she is flirting with Deckard by asking him questions, Luv responds, “We want someone to ask us questions, it makes us feel desired,” insinuating Rachael was programmed to seduce and manipulate Deckard… perhaps not unlike Joi being so fascinated to hear about Joe’s day. This prejudiced response from Luv, a replicant herself, is fascinating, especially as Luv seems to sympathize with both Deckard and Joe while boasting to the latter—after delivering a fatal stab wound at the end of the film, no less—that “I’m the best one!”

This insinuation becomes explicit when Deckard finds himself in the belly (or uterus) of the beast during the third act. Captured by Wallace and Luv, Wallace attempts to twist Deckard’s mind by suggesting he is a replicant (or is he?). He also remarks, “Pain reminds you of the joy you felt was real.” The on-the-nose word choice obviously echoes the creation of the Joi hologram. By implying that Rachael was just a device meant to ensnare Deckard for the purpose of becoming the first android to procreate a child, he is also saying the concept of love and joy are illusions grafted onto a cold and meaningless world. And just as Deckard must resist the fantasy of being reunited with a new model of Rachael that’s presented to him, so too does Joe elsewhere lament the loss of Joi—who by this time has been utterly destroyed out of spite by Luv—by looking at Joi’s holographic billboard and realizing, perhaps for the first time, that she is programmed to refer to all men as “Joe.”

From that point on, whatever else I suggest below, Joe has decided that he lacked even a true intimate connection with the woman he loved, and at that moment chooses to sacrifice his life so that Deckard can meet his real daughter. It is a resignation to the idea that there never was any joy for himself.

It’s a downbeat reading of the relationship which trickles across the dystopian LA and into all its major characters, who are themselves artificial. Upon first realizing that Joe subscribes to the Joi program, the prostitute replicant Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) almost sneers, “Oh, I see you don’t like real girls.” Further, when Joi later hires Mariette’s services for 2049’s trippiest sequence, the two artificial beings merge into a mirage with Joi’s face and figure atop Mariette’s body as they go to bed with Joe—all while creating the mesmerizing image of ghostly hands guiding real ones over the back of Gosling’s neck.

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Afterward, Mariette snarks to Joi, “I’ve been inside you, and there’s not as much there as you think.” Even amongst the caste system of artificial intelligence, literally built in Wallace’s own image, his creations subscribe to sticking to their own tiers. While replicants are now (mostly) accepted as real, especially between each other, as seen with Mariette and Joe, holograms are considered a lie. They’re an illusion of happiness in their bleak and inescapably joyless world.

This is a scathing indictment of technology and suggests that Joe himself, a product of technology, is most human because he buys into to the lie—just as Deckard might’ve done 30 years ago when he fell in love with Rachael. However, this unforgiving pessimism, while faithful to the world Scott imagined, seems unfair to the replicants who populate it. After all, Roy Batty had a poet’s heart in the original film, no matter what moviegoers’ initial prejudices might have suggested. So the newfound biases permeating between replicants about younger forms of artificial intelligence in 2049 are likely just as misguided.

It’s unavoidable to note that Villeneuve borrows heavily from Spike Jonze’s romantic daydream, Her, with the inclusion of Joi. But whereas Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied Samantha is clearly either self-aware from out of the box or becomes so by the end, de Armas’ Joi is open-ended in her awareness. Luv thinks little of her when she destroys the accessory that allows Joi to ride shotgun beside Joe throughout the second act of the movie, including when they meet a monastic Deckard in the ruins of Las Vegas.

But it is her presence in that scene that signifies artificial intelligence, even in a recently developed application, is simply a newfound avenue for life to find a way. For most of the film, audiences have become invested in the relationship of Joi and Joe, no matter its strangeness. Whether it is initially programming or a genuine spark of affection, she is in love with Joe and devoted to him, as he is to her. Could her own reactions of awe at the beatific waste surrounding Los Angeles’ sea wall really just be a calculated automation, as opposed to sincere astonishment?

Personally, I’d err toward the latter, just as Roy Batty could become taken aback by the sight of attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion in the 1982 movie. And this is all confirmed by Joi’s willingness to die for Joe. Which she does.

If Joi is just a product meant to subdue a depressed Joe, or even more simply obey his every wish and fantasy like the billboard says, she would not have requested he wipe her from the console before they go to Vegas to meet Deckard. If she stayed apart of the console, she would not have died when Luv destroyed Joe’s remote accessory. This choice by the translucent being was also antithetical to what Joe wanted to hear, as he tried to convince her to stay in the console, even if it meant that Luv and company could check Joi’s memories. It was an act of actual love to place herself in this danger to protect Joe and deny his wishes. And it was thus a real final emotion where she cried “I love you” before Luv permanently disconnected the hardware.

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Just as Deckard was naïve to believe Roy Batty and the rest of the replicants he hunted were machines that needed to be switched off, the next species of artificial intelligence, by way of holograms wholly designed by other artificial beings, are as much alive as Joe, Luv, Mariette, and whatever the hell Deckard is supposed to be.

As identity and the definition of what is “real” becomes only more fluid in Blade Runner 2049 and its vision for our darkening century, the conceit that replicants could also practice bigotry against peers who are one-step further removed from their normalized origins only proves just how human these joyless creatures are. The absence of that joy is what makes their miserable lives as real as tears in the rain.