I’m sick of young-adult dystopias. OK, The Hunger Games was cool. But Divergent? Maze Runner? Revolution? The 100? Each was god-awfuller than the one before. And when you consider none of these were one-off movies — it’s three franchises and two TV series, each of which requires a whole weekend to binge-watch if you so desire, only two of which are complete and there actually are a few one-offs that I’m not counting — YA dystopia has become more overdone than zombies over a much shorter span. Maybe telegenic 20-year-olds with perfect teeth and moisturized skin might not live forever — you’re thinking of vampires — but for some reason they have a knack for surviving famine, disease, nuclear holocaust and even 2016. (We all grieve this week for the original 20-year-old science fiction heroine who watched the rest of her planet die.)
So I really, really wanted to hate 3%. Problem is, it’s just too damn good on too many levels.
The Netflix Brasil original series (in Portuguese with English subtitles) is set in a small, intimate apocalypse, roughly a century after the fall of our current way of life. The action take place in a region called The Inland, which is mostly a sprawl of squalor where people rarely have enough food or clean water. They live in the ruins of today’s society and wear the hundred-year-old rags of what today’s street urchins are wearing. Law, justice and the family unit have all broken down.
Less than a day’s walk from our protagonists’ Inland neighborhood is the beachfront processing center for The Offshore. Every year, all 20-year-olds who qualify and apply for the opportunity are invited there to see if they can pass a days-long battery of tests to determine if they have the “merit” to be counted among the titular three percent who can dwell in the edenic Offshore. Those who are unworthy (and survive) are returned to the slums.
It starts out not unlike a typical entry-level job interview cycle, but with shatterproof glass between the applicant and the HR flunky. The bulk of the contestants eliminate themselves by telling obvious lies, going overboard with sucking up or generally being insufferable jamokes. Hard to feel sorry for them.
But then the revelatory tests begin. Sometimes the objectives are obvious — determining mathematical skill and spatial perception by building cubes out of three-dimensional Tetris shapes, for example — and some are less so — what’s the real purpose of locking all the kids together in a warehouse without enough food or water?
These challenges are overseen by the sinister — but perhaps not inherently evil — program director, Ezequiel (João Miguel). In addition to weeding out the unworthy, he also needs to uncover the identity of at least one insurrectionist, maybe more, from the shadowy group known as The Cause. While the denizens of The Offshore believe it is their right to live in paradise while the rest of the human race lives in deprivation because they have proven their superiority, the Cause represents an egalitarian vision. Whether this egalitarianism means equality under the law or everybody-gets-a-trophy rejection of individual achievement is left unclear. The producers — led by creator Pedro Aguilera — might have sympathy for The Cause, but they don’t shine romantic lighting on it. The Cause will — and literally does — lie, cheat and steal to pursue their sacred equality, and we’re left to question if the ends justify the means. The Offshore is defined by its offensive (to me at least) sense of entitlement, but at least it’s honest about it.
That’s not to say its representatives are forthcoming about much else about their home — reveals are frequent and some will catch you unaware. As for the actual Ten Little Indians-style whittling down of the contestant pool, by the end of the third of the eight 48-minute episodes you’ll have a fairly good idea who will and won’t make it. It’s how they succeed or fail that’s worth watching.
There’s no need to go into the contemporary social ills for which 3% could serve as commentary. The best thing about the political dimension is that this was produced in Brazil without any reference to events in the United States. Conflicts between those who identify themselves in contrast with others in terms of class are as big as the world and as old as the first struggle over mating privileges.
But those commentaries are there. Thoughts will be provoked. Assumptions will be challenged. Hero/villain lines will blur. All this makes 3% the most cathartic YA dystopia to date. That’s not to cast aspersions on The Hunger Games, which is also serious work despite its broader appeal, but 3% might be the entry in this subgenre that parents can watch with their high schoolers and get just as much out of it.