Bladerunner 2049’s Lack of Joi

Bladerunner 2049 is a divisive movie. People either loved it, or fell asleep during it. Which while a joke, is also fairly accurate. Bladerunner 2049 is a movie at a very deliberate and glacial pace. It’s an introspective movie, but one that navel gazes a bit too much, one that I really wanted to like but couldn’t quite, and who’s characters outside of it’s main one are a little flat and exist to serve the plot.

All of which is to say that I’m still salty about Joi dying

This may seem like an odd thing to be salty about. After all, she’s not an especially important or complex character. Her story function is purely to be attractive, die, and throw K into emotional turmoil as he questions his identity. She’s a thin character, so why care how she’s treated? And the reason is that I think her treatment gets to a fundamental problem with the movie. Which is that Villeneu is trying too hard to mimic the original movie, both in tone and character, without actually saying anything new. 

Before we get to that though, I want to preempt this discussion by saying that I’m not going to go into whether Joi’s treatment is sexist or not. We could turn it into one, and that’s an entirely legitimate line of interrogating the movie: Joi’s death is a pretty classic case of fridging, a trope where a female character is killed off so that a male character can feel pain over it. It’s problematic because it privileges the male character over the female, makes her subordinate to him in narrative importance.

But while it’s a valid way of examining the movie, it’s not the one I find most interesting here. Denis Villeneu’s other work shows he can write complicated female characters with internal lives when he wants to. Arrival, for example, has a fully realized female character as it’s protagonist. But why wasn’t he interested in writing one here? What about the story of Bladerunner 2049 made him pull back from forming Joi into a real character?

And I think the answer is that allowing Joi to live or fleshing her out into a real character would deviate too far from the structure and tone of the original Bladerunner. This movie by all rights really should be a buddy cop movie. Why introduce the element of Joi being mobile if nothing’s going to be done with it? It’s a weird limbo. She should be an active element of the film, helping K pierce together clues, or she should be at home. 

The scene where K is scouring through DNA records to try and find the hybrid makes it clear that she can see and interact with the world when in K’s pocket. Her dialogue though is about K’s emotional state, not helping solver the mystery or being useful. There’s nothing really tying their conversation to that space or scene. It could just as easily take place later in the movie in K’s apartment.

Now, it’s tempting to say that Joi’s treatment is deliberate. Men who see women primarily as objects is actually kind of a theme in Villeneuve’s work, and it’s not as though the movie is completely unaware of Joi’s cypher nature. Early in the movie Joi gives K the name Joe when he discovers that he might be the human-replicant cyborg he’s been searching for. It’s a way of giving him personhood, an identity and agency. After her death K encounters an interactive advertisement of Joi who calls him Joe, insinuating that his Joi didn’t have the authentic connection with him that he thought.

Questions of ‘realness’ permeate the film, but it doesn’t really venture into them very deeply or say anything new about them. Human cyborgs are a perfectly serviceable base to tell a bunch of fascinating and new stories, but Bladerunner 2049 simply isn’t interested in exploring any of them. As Abigail Nausbaum wrote in her review of the film:

“Blade Runner 2049 keeps teetering on the verge of interesting SFnal ideas, such as the fact that K spends much of the movie trying to convince himself that he is the child he’s been looking for.  Or his holographic live-in girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), an AI playing house with a robot, each trying to convince the other that they are real people even as they consume each other like the products that they are.  Or the idea that the world’s economy now includes replicants like K or the prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), who live as pseudo-humans, consuming resources such as food and living space even as they’re viewed as subhuman.  But the film is too caught up in homages to the original movie (including a brief and not very satisfying appearance by Harrison Ford) to ever give these ideas the space they deserve.  For all its visual expansiveness, its world feels narrow and predictable.  It never manages to be more than a retread of what came before it, a variation on a theme.”

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