Is it possible for art to be highly derivative and still feel wholly original? Look no further, perhaps, than Netflix’s Brazilian science fiction import 3%, a dystopian allegory that conjures memories of many genre ancestors, but is ultimately very much its own thing, fresh and different and powerful.
In a stark Brazilian future, wealth, power, and privilege is rigidly controlled by the Process, a yearly rite of passage whereby 20-year-olds participate in a series of tests for a chance to join an elite caste. The winners move on to the utopian society of the Offshore, while eliminated candidates return to the squalid slums of the Inland. Among the many hopefuls this year: the steely, determined Michele (Bianca Comparato); kind, wheelchair-bound Fernando (Michel Gomes); Rafael (Rodolfo Valente), a cocky rogue who will do anything to advance; Marco (Rafael Lozano), who hails from a long line of successful Process candidates; and tough, no-nonsense Joana (Vaneza Oliveira). These five, and others, provide candidate’s-eye views of the Process’s many difficult challenges.
Running the Process, meanwhile, is the calculating Ezequiel (João Miguel), whose control of the Process is called into question by a visiting Offshore agent named Aline (Viviane Porto), who arrives to monitor and possibly undermine his work. Ezequiel’s position is further endangered by intelligence that this year’s Process may have been infiltrated by an agent of “the Cause,” an underground protest movement. The system has been in place for over a hundred years, but weaknesses are starting to show and resistance is mounting. Is everything about to change?
The answer, of course, is hopefully. 3% is clearly an extended metaphor for the world’s current ills: the inherent inequality and injustice of neoliberal capitalism, where society’s citizens are pitted against each other in systemic, dog-eat-dog competition. The show’s world mirrors our reality, using the language of SF to render its harsh rules explicit, shining a light on just how heartless and entrenched our ways truly are. Even at its most obvious, it’s a raw, powerful political critique. As Michele, Fernando, and the others work their way through the constantly mutating trials of the Process, its rules grow increasingly random and arbitrary, calling attention to every unfair twist of fate that dooms candidates to impoverished obscurity in the Inland. Through it all, Ezequiel plays god, an emblem of the system’s cruel design. This is a sham meritocracy, where worth is defined less by character and ability than by ambition, luck, and sheer ruthlessness.
But there’s hope within this cruel system, and not just because the establishment is under siege — both from the Cause, and from internal politics, both of which threaten to tear down the system. The many well defined characters moving through the Process, even as they desperately seek to claw their way to a brighter future, occasionally show sparks of kindness, connection, and cooperation. Clearly, these moments suggest, there is a better way to run this world — and by extension, our own. From time to time, the bleakness of the setting is mitigated by this hopeful insight.
3%’s many stylistic progenitors are legion. The thematic approach resembles that of The Twilight Zone, in which the tools of SF are leveraged to touch on universal truths. The high-stakes tests capitalize on a potent reality show energy: think Survivor, but ratcheted up in intensity in the manner of Lord of the Flies or, more pertinently, The 100. (This peaks in episode 4, “Gateway,” in which a team challenge takes dark turns reminiscent of the Stanford prison experiment.) The systemic, age-based trials conjure comparison to Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, while enormous, post-industrial interiors and quirky fashions harken back to Logan’s Run. And then there’s a certain skiffy, thought-experiment ambience to the whole exercise that brings to mind many low-budget, high-concept SF films (many of which are streaming on Netflix) such as After the Dark, Circle, Cube, and Exam. There’s even some structural shades of Lost, as pre-Process flashbacks reveal backstory, peeling away layers of mystery.
But for all these ancestors, ultimately 3% has its own distinctive angle, its own feel. Some of this is surely cultural, a Brazilian voice examining the issues from a slightly different perspective. It could also be the unabashed way it leans into a rather unsubtle visual style, particularly in the set design and costume departments; it wears its messaging on its sleeve, but with such surreal conviction that it actually strengthens the emotional truth. It manages to stand outside its influences even as it slots quite comfortably among them.
Subtext may dominate, but 3% also boasts a sparkling surface. The cast is capable and charismatic, with Valente, Oliveira, and especially Comparato standing out. With one exception — episode 5 (“Water”), in which Ezequiel’s manpain-heavy backstory slows things down — its episodes possess compelling tension and urgent pacing. The sound and visual design is consistent, moody, and unnerving. Even its occasionally weak special effects, particularly the unrealistic CGI longshots, manage to contribute to an effective allegorical feel. Overall, it’s an impressive creation that manages to feel familiar and different, specific and universal, all at the same time. Recommended.