[major spoilers for the movie Blade Runner 2049 are below]
Folks who love Science Fiction know that the best Sci-Fi gives us glimpses of what makes humanity human through the things they create. One of the best ways to see what we are like, is to see ourselves through the eyes of things we make to resemble or even replace us. Blade Runner 2049 continues where the first Blade Runner movie left off, exploring what it means to be “human” in an increasingly inhumane world.
What I found most fascinating from this sequel was the connection the movie placed on “love” and “agency.” One of the central “love stories” of Blade Runner 2049, was the relationship between Officer K (a replicant who hunts down other human-like and human built replicants) and Joi (a programed projected AI purchased by Officer K). Officer K feels like he has very little agency in his position in life. He must obey his senior officers (or be destroyed), he is ostracized by the rest of the police force, he has no friends, and very little perceived freedom. At first glance, it appears that he has one real a real loving relationship with Joi. It is clear he cares for her. But how could you not feel love for something that is programed to meet and grant your every desire? Here’s the thing, Officer K and Joi did not have a true 2 way relationship. And it’s not love if there is no agency.
In our culture, I’m often struck with how often we mislabel love. How often I mislabel it. We imagine love to be a “feeling” we get. But it’s not, it’s an action. When someone has done something loving for us we say, “I feel loved.” We are saying that we believe that love has been acted upon us.
But often I think we also forget that we cannot receive love from something that can’t choose whether or not to give it. We might love our car, or our phones, or all our shoes. We might actually show love for those things by the way we care for them. But they can’t love us back (even if they were programed to). They can’t love if they don’t have the choice not to love. This is why there is an ethical dilemma with saying that a kidnapped victim “fell in love” with their kidnapper. Is it love if you are unable to choose another option? Maybe in Blade Runner 2049, Joi at some point transcended her programming and actively chose to love Officer K. But I doubt it, because all of Joi’s actions in the film always sought to give Officer K exactly what he wanted. And without agency, there is no love.
Officer K’s relationship with Joi can be contrasted with Rick Deckard’s relationship with his child. Deckard made the choice to never even meet his child, because the child was such a highly desired commodity. If Deckard was found by people in power what he knew would seriously endanger his kid. It could be argued that in choosing to remain completely isolated from his child, Deckard exhibited more love than Joi ever could even though Joi did all sorts of stuff for Officer K…. again, agency.
In the Christian faith, we claim to be free because of Jesus Christ (Gal. 5:1 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free”). Roger Olson in his article “The Bonds of Freedom” in christianitytoday.com writes:
Because of what Christ has done for [us] and because of [our] faith in Christ, Christians are absolutely free from the bondage of the law. [We] don’t have to do anything. On the other hand, out of gratitude for what Christ has done for [us] and in [us], the Christian is bound in service to God and other people. [We] get to serve freely and joyfully.
It’s a crazy idea. To love others; to serve and care for people even when it doesn’t make sense or the people we are caring for clearly don’t deserve it or want it. Followers of Christ are “freed up” to love this way because we recognize that we’ve been loved in the same way when we didn’t deserve it or want it either. And that we have been loved in a way (through the cross) that didn’t make much sense.
The love relationship between Officer K and Joi may not have been “real.” And yet at the end of the movie, we see Officer K able to finally show true “real” love by saving Deckard and doing his part to help free Deckard’s child from the same sort of prison Officer K felt for most of his life. Officer K gets to love actively. He gets to choose to serve. And in doing so he gets to love for real, maybe for the first time ever. What a very human action from a robot. We could all learn something from it.