[Note: This article contains spoilers]
“Love,” as a theme, has been thoroughly wrung out by Hollywood. It’s been rebuked by decades of dark, cynical films; cheapened by rom-coms; mythologized by fairy-tale fantasies. There is nothing wrong with any of these approaches in measured doses — I love films in all three categories — but, until recently, we seemed to be getting nothing but iterations on these same three points of view. For a fresh perspective, it seemed you had to look to indie films (Ain’t them Bodies Saints, for example, is a love story that defies convention at every turn).
Then Christopher Nolan came along. He gave us Interstellar, a gorgeous sci-fi epic that attempted what Henry David Thoreau accomplished in his daily journal almost two centuries ago – to unite science with emotion, to be at once technically accurate and lavishly passionate. Unfortunately, Nolan failed to convince us in at least one respect. In the film, Dr. Amelia Brand (played by Anne Hathaway) delivers a speech that seems to suggest love, like physics, is a constant, tangible force in the universe. Faced with the dilemma of saving either Matt Damon’s Dr. Mann or Brand’s lover, Brand argues that love, not logic, should inform the decision.
Nolan’s direction and the emotive strength of Hathaway’s performance make it clear to us that we should see Brand’s speech as a blueprint for understanding the arc of the film. Love is stronger than space, time, or gravity, Nolan wants us to believe – and in the end, it’s strong enough to physically unite a father and his daughter across space and time.
I didn’t buy it. Ultimately, Interstellar is weighted too far towards science and rationality to support the other end of the spectrum, and Brand’s speech comes off as little more than the mad ravings of a lovesick teenager. In creating a film that paid admirable attention to scientific detail, Nolan invalidated the philosophical side of his film.
After seeing Blade Runner 2049, I realized I had seen something different. Unlike Interstellar, Denis Villeneuve’s incredible sequel to the 1982 classic Blade Runner had managed tell a serious science fiction story that relied as much on philosophy as on science, and much of that philosophy centered around love.
Of course, “love” may not immediately jump out at you as a central theme of the film. It wasn’t until my second viewing that I began to understand the arc of K’s story in the context of love, and that understanding hinges upon K’s relationship with the three main female characters in the film: Joi, K’s AI assistant-turned-lover; Lt. Joshi, his boss at the LAPD; and Luv, essentially an “enforcer” for the Wallace Corporation.
Let’s start with Joi, portrayed by Ana de Armas with a peculiar sort of vulnerability that is by turns touching and horrifically unsettling. This dichotomy is exemplified when she steps out into the rain, ‘feeling’ the water against her ‘skin’ for the first time. We are drawn to her in this moment, willing to believe that somewhere underneath her simulated exterior, she may contain a spark of humanity. But then, just as she and K begin to kiss, she freezes, instantly dehumanized, transformed into a text message delivery system that has more in common with an iPhone than a human being. We are reminded that Joi is a product – designed, simulated. The transition is so sudden it becomes tragicomic; more than a few people at my screening laughed.
But when K is forced to flee the city, Joi does something surprising. She asks to be disconnected from K’s home-bound entertainment system and placed into a device that he can carry with him, leaving her vulnerable to death if something should happen to the device. This is a fundamentally irrational decision on her part (even if we are to believe her hasty explanation that this will prevent Wallace Corp. from data-mining her system) – she is placing the safety of K above her own self-preservation, a decision that seems more human than synthetic. Love, after all, is irrational. We don’t typically say the same about computers.
In her final scene, Ana de Armas manages to pack more emotional nuance into the character and strengthen the idea that she is truly in love with K. After K inadvertently leads Wallace’s goons to the hideout of original Blade Runner Rick Deckard, Luv (don’t worry, we’ll get to her) seizes the opportunity to destroy the device that Joi is now bound to. Realizing she is about to die, Joi declares her love to K with tears in her eyes. Now, it isn’t just the declaration itself that’s important here. Why does she wait until the moment before her death to express her feelings? Even after consummating the physical side of their relationship with a freaky sex scene that seems almost too inspired by Ghost, the timing implies she has been holding back, perhaps uncertain of K’s reaction or of the validity of her own feelings (given that she is evidently fully aware of what she is and what she is designed to do, it’s certainly possible she is having her own internal conflict about what is or isn’t real). At the moment of her death, Joi is concerned with the most human of all preoccupations: her legacy. She wants K to know her feelings, even if there is no time left to act on them. None of this seems like artificial behavior, though we know she was created artificially. These seem like the motivations of a woman in love, with all the complications and uncertainties that go along with that.
There is, of course, an obvious counterpoint to the idea that Joi is in love with K. If she was designed to serve as some kind of virtual “pleasure model” (as is suggested by the holographic ad for “JOI” K encounters later), then she was probably designed to simulate love. Does this invalidate her feelings? I think the film answers that question with an emphatic no, but to understand why, we need to look at the other characters.
Lt. Joshi, K’s boss, is unfortunately given very little screen time – probably less than Deckard, when all is said and done. But the incomparable Robin Wright makes the most of what time she has. Outfitted in sleek, militaristic black, she presents a cold and business-like demeanor. Her words put on a similar front, but their inclination towards the poetic, combined with her tendency to contradict herself, speak to a more emotional and empathetic mind beneath the veneer. She speaks of a “wall” between replicants and humans, while acknowledging the wall is an illusion, preserved in law and in the structure of society to prevent all-out war; she constantly reminds K of his inferior, subservient status as a replicant, but when they sit down to have a chat at K’s home, it is clear she admires and respects him. She asks him for a childhood memory, and appears to understand that even if the memory never actually happened, it’s K’s experience of it that counts. “Little K, protecting what’s his,” she says, perfectly summing up the function of the memory in K’s psyche. Though he acknowledges it isn’t real, he clearly values it, having mentioned it to Joi countless times. The memory is a symbol of his capacity for independence, for rebellion, for protecting what’s his. The fact that Joshi understands the superiority of experience over programming (or feelings over facts) suggests she knows K has the capacity to love.
Furthermore, after having a drink (but clearly not drunk), Joshi implies being open to having sex with K. His refusal is an early indication of his loyalty to Joi, and Joshi’s invitation is another sign that for all her talk about walls and the soullessness of replicants, it may be she that feels lonely, soulless; trapped in a cold, emotionally desolate society, she is drawn to K, perhaps sensing a streak of self-determination behind his dead expression. Interestingly, the way sex is brought up and quickly dismissed also raises the possibility that these two do love each other – not as lovers, but as mother and son. Joshi is much older than K, even if we were to pretend K did have a childhood, and she exerts withering authority over him. Yet, when he crosses a line that cannot be crossed, she gives him an opportunity to escape. Her words are obviously important to him, and she is the first person to whom he betrays a spark of free thought when he admits to being conflicted about hunting down a natural-born replicant. Even Joi picks up on a bond between them and references it more than once.
Then Joshi dies. On my first viewing, I found this scene random, even gratuitous. It seemed to function only to establish how far Luv was willing to go, and maybe to give Joshi a punctuated send-off rather than let her disappear unceremoniously from the film. But the second time around, I grasped the threads that lead these two characters together. Both seem to have feelings of some nature for K. Early on, Luv waxes poetic about how personal questions can inspire desire, only to follow up by asking K a personal question. K shoots her down instantly. Later, her destruction of Joi seems like an explicit act of jealousy. The killing is hard to justify any other way, given that she leaves K alive.
Her killing of Joshi, too, seems motivated in part by unrequited desire for K. When Joshi stands firm while Luv ruthlessly crushes a glass into her hand, it’s easy to see the encounter as nothing more than Man versus Replicant, but as we’ve already discussed, there is no reason to think Joshi has any real problem with replicants. In refusing to submit to Luv, she isn’t standing up for her species; she’s standing up for K. The glass Luv crushes into her hand is a wine glass, after all. She has been drinking, likely consumed by guilt over believing she has forced K to kill an innocent, biologically-born replicant. This guilt would certainly be severe if she does, in fact, feel maternally responsible for him. Her acceptance of death rather than selling out K suggests that she does love him in some fashion, just as Joi’s death proved the same. But the scene makes the most sense if we see her as a mother figure. Her willingness to die for K is a final act of devotion to him and what he represents: an ideal of love as an experience, not genetic programming or a summation of hormonal responses. Joshi is not K’s mother biologically, but her experience of their relationship amounts to the same thing; she loves and protects him as she would a son, and her final act of death is her version of Joi’s declaration of love.
Villeneuve makes the motherhood parallel visual by showing Luv slicing open Joshi’s womb. Earlier in the film, Wallace makes the same cut on a female replicant after failing, once again, to create a replicant that can give birth. By the time Luv kills Joshi, the tormented replicant has been twisted by Wallace’s deranged philosophizing and her unrequited feelings for K. When she confronts K for the final time, those feelings have been tinged with hatred and jealousy, and her understanding of what love is has also been irreparably damaged by Wallace’s tendency to conflate love with power. Wallace essentially uses the word as a term of endearment for his underlings, which falls in line with his self-perception as a godlike figure. The very act of giving Luv her name was an example of this. Thus, when Luv finally kisses K, she does so at the apex of her percieved power over him, right after she has stabbed him (seemingly fatally). After the kiss, she declares, “I’m the best one!” She, too, conflates love with power.
Here is where Villeneuve’s film rebukes Nolan’s. Where love in Interstellar was an emotional stroke of philosophy in a film grounded in scientific theory, love fits perfectly into the thematic and stylistic landscape of Villeneuve’s film. Replicants are people too, he says – they deserve to determine their own destinies. But why? Because their experiences are valid. Genetics can be predetermined. Looks, skills, preferences are all programmable. But experiences, regardless of their triggers, are organic. Love, for Villeneuve, is not a constant force. It does not reside on the same semi-tangible plane as physics or gravity, ruled by mysterious but ironclad laws. It is, itself, an act of creation, brought to life and governed by the subjective experiences of an individual. Love opens up a new world for Joi. Love grants purpose to Joshi. Love destroys Luv.
And what about K? It’s easy to overlook love as the real cause of his ultimate rebellion, looking instead to his belief that he is special, natural-born, the star of yet another “chosen one” narrative. But his belief is mistaken. If belief in his uniqueness were his primary motivator, learning the natural-born was a girl would have destroyed him. Instead, he comes across a gigantic hologram advertising a version of “JOI,” ostensibly the same “entertainment program” he had fallen in love with. The hologram is empty, apparently aware but without any substance beyond her programmed seductiveness. Suddenly, K is enlightened. If Joi had come from that, then there is a will inside him, too. He need not cast away his memories because they belong to someone else. His experiences are his own, and they are what give him his individuality. Nor should he cast away his love. Joi’s final declaration – her legacy – lives on inside him, the fire that propels him to take control of his destiny.
“What am I to you?” Deckard asks him near the end.
K doesn’t answer, but I can guess what he is thinking: Deckard, like K himself, is motivated by love. In the end, love is the only master K is willing to serve.