The original Blade Runner showed us that two replicants can fall in love. This makes sense, because a replicant is almost indistinguishable from a naturally-born human. Made with the same biological building blocks, they should have the capability for the same emotions as humans.
Blade Runner 2049’s main character, the more advanced model replicant K, has a different love interest: a “virtual” holographic girlfriend by the name of Joi. Can the human emotion of love exist between two such entities? I argue that it can.
Joi is represented in advertisements as a highly sexualized virtual girlfriend made by the Wallace Corporation, where the client gets to “ hear what you want to hear”, and “see what you want to see”. The audience first meets K’s version of Joi when he returns back home (the residents of his shoddy apartment block are happy to discriminate openly against replicants, and shout slurs at him as he passes). Joi brings him some simple cheerfulness and makes his dinner look more appetizing through a hologram. You can imagine that the new dress she is showing off is nothing more than an “in-app purchase” put there by Wallace Corp. to better monetize their product. It’s clear that her appeal also inspires K to spend his recent bonus on an expensive addon “emanator” which will let him take the Joi hologram outside of his home. This leads to a virtual kiss in the rain scene, which gets interrupted when K gets an incoming call: he switches off the hologram as if it were nothing to him.
Once K starts tracking down the lost replicant child, it’s clear that the Wallace Corporation is uncannily aware of his movements and the status of the investigation. They are using their link through Joi to watch him. Up to this point, it seems that Joi has not gone beyond a computer program designed to press a customer’s emotional buttons in exchange for money. (Not much different than many products we have today: social networks, freemium games, lootboxes, etc).
However, soon we hit a turning point: K fails his “baseline”, normally the consequence of this is immediate death. He convinces his boss to give him one more chance, and returns home with the intention to run away and continue looking for the lost child. Joi offers to go with him, and instructs him to upload her memories into his portable emanator, and then to destroy the antenna by which they may track him. As soon as K snaps the antenna, the Wallace Corporation springs into action, proving the point that they were using the link to watch him. This is the first sign that Joi actually feels love for K. She is willing to take a personal risk: with her consciousness uploaded, she would lose all of her memories if the storage device was destroyed. It appears that this has great personal importance to both her and K.
Joi provides K with emotional support, as he flies to Las Vegas to meet with Deckard. When the Wallace Corporation finally catches up with them, the antagonist sees Joi, and goes to stomp her foot down on the emanator. Joi’s last words to K are “I love you”. K himself appears unable to know how to process this loss.
In the end, Joi’s words are reinforced by her actions. She may have been synthetic, but she acted on her feelings towards K. Her decision to upload herself into the emanator and destroy the antenna prioritized her’s and K’s needs, over the needs of her creators. It is the same decision that many young adults would face in the same situation: to act not in the ultimate interest of themselves, or their parents, but to act selflessly for another being. And is that not love?