Netflix's 3%: an underappreciated sci-fi gem


The first Netflix original production from Brazil, and only its second produced in Latin America, 3% is a dystopian sci-fi show that should be on everyone’s must-watch list. Based on a rejected TV pilot from 2011, it was created by Pedro Aguilera, who returns, along with one of two original writers, Ivan Nakamura, and a whole new team.

With dialogue in Portuguese, rather than English, this show has inevitably ended up becoming one of the more under-appreciated jewels in the Netflix Originals catalogue. If reading subtitles is not your thing, then a dubbed version is also available (and weirdly, is the default setting on Netflix). Personally, I used the subtitles as I found the dubbing to be more distracting.

Across eight episodes, it tells the story of a dystopian future where most people live in a decaying city, known as The Inland. However, after their 20th birthday, everyone is given one opportunity to go through The Process, to see if they are worthy of joining the exclusive, mysterious utopia known as The Offshore. But, as you probably guessed, only 3% of applicants make it through.

The Process consists of a series of tests, puzzles and scenarios which groups or individuals have to complete in order to prove they are worthy of continuing onto the next stage. As they progress, these tests become more psychologically and physically intense, stretching the candidates to breaking point (and sometimes, beyond).

But of course, it wouldn’t be a science-fiction dystopia without an underground force who want the whole system to collapse. Enter The Cause. Believing the current society is built on injustice, and that The Process is immoral, they want to bring equality to all by bringing down the whole corrupt, elitist system.

We are also allowed to see behind the proverbial curtain and see the political machinations that are involved in running a utopia-selection system. It is revealed there is a power struggle within The Council, (who apparently run The Offshore), over who controls The Process. This leads to a Council Monitor being sent to review both The Process, and its current leader.

And we haven’t even come to the candidates yet…

As is clear, this is very much an ensemble show, and it takes a few episodes before it become entirely clear who the main characters are. However, being a core member of the cast in no way ensures survival. Here’s a quick run-down of the show’s main characters.

Michele

Despite being part of an ensemble cast, Michele is very much the main character, and the first person we meet in this world. She was raised by her brother, until he went missing after his attempt to pass The Process.

Fernando

In many ways personifies the hopes and dreams of The Offshore. Despite being in a dilapidated wheelchair, Fernando is allowed to participate in The Process, much to the amusement and derision of his fellow candidates. Raised by his father, a preacher who spends his days proselytising about the beauty of The Process, his entire life has been spent training for this moment.

Rafael

The obvious villain of the piece. His sole interest is in making it to The Offshore, by whatever means necessary. Not popular, but as that isn’t one of the criteria of The Process, he doesn’t care.

Joana

An orphan raised on the streets of The Inland, forced to fend for herself. A tough character who has little interest in any of the other candidates, and whose driving force is self-preservation.

Marco

Coming from a line of people who have apparently successfully completed The Process and made it to The Offshore. Feeling it is his birthright, he exudes a level of confidence, which makes him the least desperate, and therefore the most ‘virtuous’ member of the group.

Ezequiel

Currently oversee The Process, monitoring and controlling every facet, making changes to tasks, as and when he sees fit. A firm believer in the value of The Process, he inevitably ends up playing God with people’s lives.

Aline

Sent by The Council to review and report on Ezequiel and The Process. Highly able and ambitious. Seen instantly by Ezequiel as a threat, and a tool of those in The Council who want to see him removed.

Whilst this is a large (though by no means complete) cast, and the interactions betweens these diverse personalities is a great source of conflict, the show also takes the opportunity to explore each character in detail.

Whilst we learn about everyone through their reaction to each test (and the inevitable aftermath), each episode takes an opportunity to delve into a singular character’s background. We learn the backstory of everyone, and through them, more about The Inland. We learn about life there, how these specific characters lived, and what drives them through The Process.

It is also worth taking some time to appreciate the craft of the show.

Visually, 3% is great. The Inland, a once-impressive city, is impoverished. Crumbling skyscrapers stand as monuments to it’s once former glory, with the drab concrete standing in sharp contrast to almost excessive explosions of colour. From the garish robes made from rags, to the brightly-coloured graffiti which covers the walls (even at the tops of the highest buildings), it provides a sense at times of a Dystopian version of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival.

By contrast, The Process and The Offshore are, inevitably, far more subdued. The colours, for the most part, are muted. Creams and greys suggest a less hectic, more ordered existence. Everything this is sleek and smooth, metallic or glass. Practically perfect in every way.

Meanwhile, The Offshore is only ever hinted at. Seen through blurry snapshots (with plenty of lens flare), we never truly learn what it is like there. There is plenty of speculation, of course, which is more reflective of the character’s personality than the truth of what might actually be.

Yes, this style is pretty standard within the dystopian sci-fi genre, but what is impressive is how these environments are used to enhance the emotional impact of the show. Many scenes are shot in a more unconventional manner. Those going through The Process are shot through clear glass barriers, providing an almost aquarium feel, like they are contained in a glass cage.

There is also a great use of mirrors. Characters are reflected back at one another, or at themselves. They talk and we see several versions, or the reflected version, rather than them directly. This is a great metaphor for all the characters, all of whom have something to hide, or are trying to manage other people’s perceptions in a very specific manner.

There is a liberal use of handheld camera work providing a great feel of uncertainty and unsteadiness. This, coupled with the deliberate choice of some very unconventional camera angles, only adds to the disorientation of The Process. The use of light and shadow, creates at times almost a noir feeling, whilst we’re spun around in all directions and provided with a disorientating view of the world, until we, like the characters, are unsure which way is up.

An often overlooked element of show design is the music. Whilst it might be expected that there would be an electronic, synthesised score, or something very formal and structured (like an orchestra), the choice is made to go with folk music. Providing a rustic charm, the whole thing feels very haphazard and free. Composed by Andre Mehmari, certain viewers will inevitably be reminded of Greg Edmonson’s work of the Joss Whedon classic Firefly, itself a show with a strong (but very different) ‘us vs. them’ undercurrent.

Structurally, it also takes advantage of the flexibility Netflix has, in contrast to traditional TV outlets, regarding running times. The episodes run for between 38 and 48 minutes, depending on the story they need to tell. Whilst there is inevitably a desire to tell more story (or cut fewer scenes due to time restraints), there is still a sense of discipline here. The episodes don’t feel baggy or self-indulgent. Even the longer episodes are lean, and the shorter episodes demonstrate they are unwilling to pad out the run-time unnecessarily.

Whilst the dystopian sci-fi market has been particularly saturated for the last few years, 3% manages to reference a number of cultural touchstones in the genre, whilst bringing something fresh and interesting to the table.

At the heart of the show is a sense of moral ambiguity. Characters are never who you expect and as they go through The Process we see what is required to pass, and whether the people have what it takes. This makes the viewer question what they would do, not only for a cause they might believe in, but for the chance at a better life.

This is a really enjoyable show dealing with interesting themes, rich characterisation, and plenty of twists and turns to keep people guessing. Although there are two polar opposite sides, the story itself tries to stay away from black/white moralising, preferring instead to find it’s home in the grey middle. The good guys are not perfect, and the villains are humanised. It is all too easy to fall into proselytising when you create such a world, but that is deftly avoided here.

With only eight episodes it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, but doesn’t rush through the story either. With a second season already confirmed by Netflix, you’d do well to start watching this.



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