There’s a ton of talk online about the Turing twists of Westworld and the linguistic lore of Arrival, but there should be a lot more conversation around Netflix’s Brazilian sci-fi pressure cooker 3%. The series—based on a half-hour one-off that played Brazilian TV back in 2011—has the tightly woven thrills of Quantico or Homeland with the post-apocalyptic technological flare of your favorite sci-fi wonder.
The world laid out by Pedro Aguilar’s series should sound familiar to even casual fans of socio-political sci-fi. At some point in the future, as in all times, society is split rigidly between the haves and the havenots. The wealth and resource gap rivals the Grand Canyon, but every year poor citizens who are 20 years of age can offer themselves up to The Process. The mental, emotional, and physical series of tests offers 3% of the horde the chance to live in the affluent world—an island paradise called The Offshore, apparently filled with the best of the best of humanity. The ritual keeps the young hopeful, the rejected bitter, and the prosperous content.
The underlying philosophy for those banging at the gates is that, if you’re living in hell, anywhere else must feel like heaven.
Our entry point to 3% is a peaceful, cheery march of applicants up to the gates of a high tech, brutalist building set at the top of a cliff (perpetually looking down on the impoverished) where favela-dwellers in rags will don athletic gear and experience modern comforts for the first time in their oppressed lives. We meet Michele (Bianca Comparato), an assuming young woman who’s happy to help others in the dog-eat-dog competition; Joana (Vaneza Oliveira), the steely-eyed, not-here-to-make-friends type; Fernando (Michel Gomes), a wheelchair-bound puzzle-solving whiz; and a revolutionary fistful of other characters who bring their own hangups and agendas into a process that’s already less than straightforward.
There’s also an underground group called The Cause, which seeks to bring down the entire power apparatus, and Ezequiel (João Miguel), the overseer of The Process who is himself being audited by Aline (Viviane Porto), an emissary for The Council. Everyone, everyone, everyone is being tested.
More than a clone of Hunger Games (or any other sci-fi Dystopia that champions the huddled masses yearning to breathe free), 3% is also an adept, angry satire that utilizes reality television competitions as a mirror for our worst instincts. Yes, The Process has the added element of a prize that promises a completely different, better life among the elite, but don’t all reality shows? Top money rewards allow participants to dream of climbing up the class system ladder, and insta-celebrity can propel even the most everyday narcissist into the kind of household status that opens up endorsement deals and more TV appearances.
3% knows this, and it wisely follows a dozen people, self-picked to live in a heavily-monitored house, to see what happens when people stop being polite and start fighting for their lives.
That competitive premise boosts a natural tension that fuels 3%: A brutal job interview where people who have waited years to escape squalor are eliminated in the first few minutes of the process. A prisoner’s dilemma where two women are told that one of them is a mole working for a terrorist, anti-Process cell. A spatial puzzle with multiple, clever answers. All of these offer the DNA-level thrill of wondering who will stay, who will go, and how the eliminated will handle it.
As with most stories that whittle down the many to the few, there’s a loss of humanity along the way. The Offshore only takes the best, but there’s no sense—especially from the contextless tests—of what that means. We only have the well-heeled bureaucrats (like Ezequiel) as a guide, and their back-biting only illustrates that life outside the favelas is comprised solely of people willing to screw their neighbor.
The Netflix show has the same baked-in commentary on immigration, income inequality, and subjugation that normally comes with the sci-fi territory, but it presents it with the sexy flare of prime time, which makes it feel more arthouse-aimed and socially aware than, say, How to Get Away with Murder, but also far sleeker and pulpier than 1984. Add in an ear-hollowing score and crisp, tight cinematography that both work to make you feel trapped inside with the participants, and you have a recipe that uses the best flavors from a variety of genres to meet somewhere in the middle.
An intriguing thriller with all the ingredients for bad blood and consequence, character is revealed through action and tiny touches of relationships—the first flirtations with how the candidates will relate to one another despite being in competition against each other for their lives. It also (if the the first two episodes set the example) picks a participant to focus on, sharing his or her backstory and digging up personal secrets from the dirt to atone for the wicked or complicate the ethical.
The true test of a binge-worthy show like this is how badly you want the next episode to start, and with 3% there’s no need to bother with the remote, except to occasionally tell Netflix that, yes, of course, you’re still watching.
Rating: 4 out of 5 burritos.
Enjoy losing an entire evening to the 8-episode run. It’s available in Portugese with subtitles or dubbed English.