I’ve seen Blade Runner 2049 four times now. That’s just about 11 hours of my life I have dedicated to Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece of worldbuilding and storytelling. It’s not just completely worthy of the original Blade Runner, it even far exceeds the quality of that original, creating an absorbing dystopic world with a fascinating story and characters which work as an extension to the original, complementing the themes well. However, while the first Blade Runner is indeed great and iconic as all hell, I’d say 2049 has more interesting and well-rounded characters, specifically the character of Officer K, or Joe, or whatever you want to call him. The reason I do believe he’s the most interesting character in both Blade Runner films is related to how he acts from the beginning to the end, and how his actions are always a result of the world in which he survives. Note how I said ‘survives’ rather than ‘lives’, since that is relevant to his overall arc.
Throughout the film, we’re shown various examples of technology existing in the most sterile and practical sense. K’s shower is a prime example, eliminating the ability to enjoy a nice, relaxing wash in favour of a pressure wash that gets the job done faster. In the city, we see restaurants have been replaced by giant vending machines since that’s a lot more practical for both costs and managing the ever-increasing flow of customers. Hell, K only owns Joi because he is frequently rejected by society, meaning it’s a lot simpler to just purchase someone to give you company. It’s a little messed up, but it makes sense given the circumstances. We live in an age where technology repeatedly prioritises making life easier for the consumer, so Blade Runner 2049 almost acts as a heightened idea of our lives currently: a world stripped of human interaction, because isn’t that just an inconvenience?
This relates to K’s arc as throughout the film he desperately searches for purpose, a reason to carry on when his life is at a constant low point. When he suspects himself of being the replicant child, he is egged on by Joi into believing that he is special, that he may play a bigger part in this world, and subsequently, he does, adopting the human name Joi gives him: Joe. However, as the film progresses, he discovers that he was in fact just an ordinary replicant who just happened to have the wrong memories bestowed upon him. Of course, this devastates him, and as he contemplates this tragic news, a Joi advertisement stops him, exclaiming, “you look like a good Joe”. This is where he finally realises his mistake, the one aspect of his life that was holding him back: Joi. Whether or not she was aware of it, she was the one constantly making it out like he was special, how he didn’t need to make anything of himself because his inherent uniqueness negated his daily life. However, of course, this was all built into her programming. The tagline of the Joi is literally “Everything you want to see. Everything you want to hear”, which we see in the frame as K comes to the realisation that he was nothing but an average Joe.
However, he doesn’t need to be, which is where his arc is fully realised. Sure, he may be perfectly comfortable living a life where he’s told how great he is with a girl who suits his every desire, but that’s only short-term happiness. He’ll only ever be truly happy when he understands the human experience and realises that being flawed and fucking up sometimes is okay. In a world which is obsessed with brief endorphin stimulants over anything with a lasting impact, K had to learn how to be better than what this city expects of him, and the only way he could do that was by losing the single thing he ever loved, which ultimately was the thing holding him this entire time, by his doing. He finally finds his purpose, which is to save Deckard and protect the replicant child, for the greater good of the world. By fulfilling this goal, he is met with his demise, but at least by now, he can die knowing he did the right thing. There’s an earlier shot immediately after he is led to believe he’s the replicant child, where he looks down at his hand to see snowflakes landing on it. This is a moment of self-reflection for him, as he finally finds purpose in his existence, and he sees himself as more than just a “skinjob”. This action with the raised hand is subtly repeated as he lays dying on the steps, once again in the snow, and this is to signify again that he’s found purpose in life. However, the repeating of the action is significant as it shows that by finally being true to himself and acting in a selfless way for the good of the world, he can finally find peace in knowing he lived meaningfully.
He dies in the snow, but there’s a bittersweetness to it. He may have died unjustly, but one thing is for sure: he died content, and that’s what K wanted all along.