Artificial intelligence in Blade Runner 2049

I’ve been thinking a lot about AI lately, probably because someone pointed me at Janelle Monae’s Metropolis-themed albums. You may remember I did a whole blogpost in response to Ex Machina, comparing it to Metropolis. The latter movie is a fascinating piece of cultural history to me, as a woman and a speculative fiction author, so no doubt it will come up again. (You may also check out this post comparing depiction of AI.)

One of the things that fascinates me about the trope of a built artificial intelligence is the reasons that the creators (in narrative and of the narrative) code specific AIs as feminine. The feminine AI is, typically, a source of comfort, comfort that generally involves sex work but may not always. We see this very clearly in Metropolis, where the scientist creates a robot in the image of a woman he desires, and in Ex Machina, where the scientist creates multiple women, often voiceless, purely for the purposes of sex and a stunted type of companionship (though he rationalizes his inventions as more than that). But this narrative choice is simultaneously most poignant and most disturbing in the more recent Blade Runner 2049.

I posted about this movie when it came out, and I loved it. But I didn’t get into my exact emotional responses to the relationship between Joi and K because there was so much going on with the movie. K believes that he loves Joi, and Joi believes (as much as she can believe, which is left up to the viewer) that she loves K. But in the end, Joi is created to believe that she loves K. She is created to serve him. Can love that is not chosen be love?

What is fascinating to me about Joi’s character is how she is built to fulfill the idea of what a woman is. Unlike the replicants, who are largely shown behaving with clear autonomy and are able to affect change in the narrative, Joi is utterly loyal – and utterly powerless. In no scene is this more apparent than when K crashlands in the junkyard. Joi, experiencing a system error, is trying to wake him up, trying to help him in whatever way she can. But she cannot help him. She cannot even help herself.

Joi

Joi needs another woman to be able to even touch K in the way that she wants to. She needs a flesh-and-blood woman’s active participation to be intimate with K, and it is debatable how much control of that interaction she has, forced to sync each of her motions with Mariette’s own to maintain what is, in the end, an illusion. Whatever Joi feels, however she has been allowed to be an individual in her motivations and emotions, she is functionally without agency. Her existence is even more pitiful than K’s. At least he can kill those who hurt him. Joi can only be erased.

What is so powerful for me about the narrative role that Joi plays is that she does seem to care. In an article on Animation World Network, VFX supervisor Richard Hoover says this about the junkyard scene: “It was important to depict her attachment to K as her systems were failing. She tries to save K, but she can’t touch him or pull him from the wreckage. It was an emotional scene.” I respectfully disagree. It wasn’t just an emotional scene.

It was a horror movie.

There’s a popular concept in feminist critique called “fridging”. As defined, “‘Fridging’ (Short for ‘Women in Refrigerators’) Refers to an act where the villain kills, maims, depowers, or rapes someone close to the hero in order to break the hero’s spirit and attempt to make the hero chase him.” It surprised me not at all when Joi met her fate later in the movie. Joi was an idea of what women are, from the beginning. She was an idea of a housewife, of a companion, of a lover. She was, in the end, none of those things. She was a lie that K was told, that he let himself be told, by systems of power.

And that is what is so interesting, for me, about Joi’s character. Joi is a lie told about what women are, or perhaps about what it is desirable for women to be. But in the end, her vulnerable and truly self-less nature causes K nothing but pain. Just as systems of patriarchy often do not benefit individual men when enforced upon partners they rely on, K is not benefited by the lie of Joi’s character. He becomes dependent, and, later, lost. The lynchpin of his life was, after all, so easily twisted and stolen.

Unlike many viewers, I don’t think that Joi lacked feelings. I think that Joi was so stripped of agency as to have those feelings be fundamentally meaningless or harmful. And this reading is the horror movie, for me, because it is the horror of the narrative of womanhood that we are told, day after day. Powerlessness corrupts, and in Joi’s case, powerlessness erases.


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