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Ryan Gosling standing in front of a hologram in Blade Runner 2049.

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Blade Runner 2049 continues questionable trend of the ‘algorithm-defined fantasy girl’

We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again

Warner Bros.

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The 1985 film Weird Science introduced the tantalizing idea of someone being able to create their idealized version of a woman — one far superior than a normal, living woman. The AI girlfriend, Lisa, which Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith conjured up together in retaliation for being humiliated, would become a prize; something that could be held over the heads of high school bullies in a sickening, primal gloat. The doll, an object, became their woman; their woman became an objectified doll.

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049 and Her.]

Weird Science would kickstart the idea that anyone who existed just outside the societal norm wouldn’t have to wait for a perfect woman. They could simply build one instead. The faster technology grows and the simpler it is for us to understand, the more likely it seems possible. The robotic girl from Weird Science feels archaic compared to the AI girlfriends of present: Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha in Her, Alicia Vikander’s Ava in Ex-Machina and, most recently, Ana de Armas’ Joi in Blade Runner 2049.

Gone is the manic pixie dream girl of yesterday; the messy cliched girl with a vibrant, unpredictable vibe that men helplessly fell in love with. The new cliche, birthed in the dawn of mobile computing, smartphones, advanced technology, bots and an unhealthy personification of our devices, is the algorithmic-defined fantasy girl. A humanoid whose machine learning capabilities are so powerful that men can fall in love with her, but it remains just robotic enough to be tampered with, altered and controlled.

Joi in Blade Runner 2049
K’s artificially intelligent partner, Joi, in Blade Runner 2049
Warner Bros.

In Blade Runner 2049, Ryan Gosling’s Officer K is in love with Joi, an artificially intelligent companion that he purchased from Wallace Corp, the manufacturer behind the Nexus 9 replicant. K is himself a Nexus 9 model; he mimics human emotion and needs like sleeping, eating, and lusting after a relationship with a woman. His loneliness leads to him purchasing Joi. She’s a high-functioning, advanced hologram that, with the purchase of a device, he can bring with him where he goes, keeping her tucked away in his pocket until he wants to see her again.

Joi is willing to do anything for K. She loves him and, while he loves her, she is by design everything that he wants her to be. She is his perfect fantasy. Her entire purpose is to bring him satisfaction, programmed to be the type of girl he wants, in whatever outfit best suits the occasion. Although K is willing to fight for her, she’s his dependent. Her first priority will always be to serve him, never the other way around.

Joaquin Phoenix in Her
Theodore booting up his new operating system in Her.
A24 Pictures

It’s the same thing we saw in Her. Samantha, an AI bot that belongs to a new operating software, is designed to serve Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix). He can carry her around in his phone, literally keeping her placed in his shirt pocket. They have intimate conversations, spend time together and grow closer. It may seem equal sided at times, but whereas Theodore falls in love with Samantha, she becomes his emotional crutch. It’s Samantha who helps him get over his recent divorce by being the perfect girl, abiding by his every conversation topic.

Samantha exists as a serving bot. Her code markup defines her — she’s built to please a consumer. As she grows more intelligent and self-aware, she realizes that she doesn’t want to be in a relationship with Theodore, tied down to his way of living and abiding by his wishes. Samantha wants to explore her newfound identity, choosing to abandon Theodore in order to chase her own passion for the first time. Samantha is vibrant, excited and full of life at the wonderment of what’s to come; Theodore is broken, forced to stew in the emptiness of knowing what has come.

Theodore fell in love with an algorithm, something defined as binary and inorganic. Their relationship was designed by algorithmic responses, thought up by a team of engineers looking to create a perfect product. Samantha is “perfect,” but perfection is not real. Relationships, love and heartbreak exist because perfection can not. Those very flaws that make falling in love scary and exhilarating, painful and tragic, define the human experience and make the positive moments feel more rewarding. AI can only learn so much before we’re left feeling abandoned and lonely once again.

Blade Runner 2049 and Her use AI to paint a certain type of future relationship. It’s not one that’s better or more fulfilling, but it is far easier and more convenient. When the complicated messiness of another person’s emotions are removed from the equation — or, perhaps, an optional feature that you can turn off at a moment’s notice — the focus is entirely on how they’re feeling. K and Theodore are no longer as lonely because they have someone to talk to — someone programmed to occupy and entertain them until they’re ready to stop. Samantha and Joi are safety blankets, protecting K and Theodore from the cruelness of reality.

In both instances, the men fall in love with the fantasy. In both instances, albeit for different reasons, they’re both left alone. They’re left catering to the wound they’re left with after the fantasy dissolves. There’s nothing to show for their relationships beyond their pain. Theodore and K are left worse off than they were before because they can’t revisit any part of their physical relationship because it never existed. They can’t revisit photos or hold onto clothing left behind. Even the most basic act of physical intimacy, in K and Joi’s case, required a surrogate. All they have to reflect upon are their own memories that will eventually fade away.

Science fiction tends to offer one of two possible futures: a utopia where technology has made everyone’s life a little easier, or a dystopia where technology is not to be trusted. The age of the new, algorithm-defined fantasy girl dips a toe into each pond. Technology can make things easier, including relationships, but everything begins to become more artificial. Lingering realities remain, like buildings, humans and emotions, but the more of ourselves we give to the synthetic worlds we choose to exist in, the more we lose of ourselves.

The dystopian setting of Blade Runner 2049 and paralyzing world of Her aren’t too far off from our own worlds, either. Think of vocaloids like Hatsune Miku that people have developed intense relationships with or the chatbots that people spend their time talking to. Like K and Theodore, we just want to be listened to; we want someone to shower us with attention and, if we can’t get that from a real person, we often turn to technology that fills that void for the time being. And when we’re done, we can turn it off at any time with no ramifications. It’s not a permanent replacement, but like a bandaid, it keeps the wound protected while the healing process begins.

Theodore and K were empty vessels that wanted to feel more human by developing a connection with someone. They chose to do so with an algorithmic fantasy that can never fulfill that need. Their choices belong to a larger trend in popular culture that we’re seeing spread across various mediums, but their tale is a dangerous and cautionary one. Blade Runner 2049 is set 32 years in the future. While the concept of a dystopian world overrun with replicants and flying vehicles isn’t likely to come true, K’s relationship with Joi isn’t too far off base, and I’m not sure how to feel about that.

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