The applicants have three minutes to make nine perfect cubes. There's nine of them in the room standing around a circular table with a massive tray in the middle filled with the blocks they'll use to complete the process. Those who finish the puzzle will move on to the next round of the interview. Those who don't are out of the street, literally.
This isn't an unorthodox job interview for a new San Francisco tech company, but a harrowing scene from Netflix's 3%, a new Brazilian science fiction series that hits close to home. It's a world of extreme income inequality where techno-fascists rule with an iron fist. Imagine an immortal Peter Thiel lording over the Bay Area and you'll have some idea.
3% has a simple but brilliant setup: In the near future the planet has gone to shit and the world is divided between the haves and have nots. About three percent of the population lives in opulent splendor on an island wonderland in the Atlantic Ocean. It's called The Offshore. The other 97 percent live in poverty on a continent devastated by some unexplained disaster.
Every year, the 97 percent sends its 20-year-olds to undergo The Process, the method by which the elites replenish their numbers. The young men and women undergo psychological, emotional, and physical tests to earn a spot on The Offshore. Only three percent make it through every year and the competition is cutthroat.
On the surface, 3% sounds like another bad Hunger Games knockoff—a young adult dystopian story where kids learn they're chosen and rebel against a tyrannical adult-run system of control. It's not. 3% is a brutal commentary on the world's rising income inequality and the lengths we're all willing to go to to improve our lot.
Famed Brazilian cinematographer César Charlone directed eight of the show's episodes and his unique vision gives 3% a surreal and horrible feel not seen in lesser dystopias. This is the guy who controlled the camera for City of God and The Constant Gardner.
It's also an incredibly Brazilian show, which is perfect. Brazil has some of the highest income disparity on the planet. São Paulo is a megacity where the ultra-rich travel the skies in rented helicopters and cruise the streets in bulletproof cars. It's a city where the poor live in makeshift favelas that resemble something from William Gibson's nightmares. It's a city where plastic surgeons do a brisk trade in reconstructive ear surgery because kidnapping is common and the easiest way to prove you've got a mark is to send their ear.
In 3%, the Offshore has used the Process to control the population for more than 100 years and looking at modern Brazil, it's not a huge leap.
It's unclear what, exactly, The Process tests for. It begins with a job interview where three percenters grill the newcomers to an emotional breaking point to see how they'll react. Then the kids move on to complicated cognition tests such as putting together the nine cubes.
"You each create your own merit," Ezequiel, the man running the process, tells the kids as they file into the dorms. "No matter what happens … you deserve this." He's implying that only those who deserve to move Offshore will make the cut. This is a meritocracy taken to the extreme.
Losers who don't make it Offshore will spend their entire lives in poverty. The stress is so high that one confident kid who doesn't make the cut immediately commits suicide by throwing himself off a balcony in the testing center.
It's not so far from our own world, where the competition to get into a good school and land a good job drives many to self harm. In the 3%, as in our own world, society looks down on those who don't achieve and there's a certain kind of person who believes that life's losers earned their place at the bottom.
In 3%, there is—of course—a resistance against The Offshore. Ezequiel says this group operates "in the name of a false or hypocritical equality." The divide is so baked into society that not even the have-nots question it. Everyone wants to get what they believe they deserve.
John Steinbeck argued socialism would never take off in America because the poor see themselves as "temporarily embarrassed capitalists." 3%—like Black Mirror—hits so hard because it seems bizarre and distant, but as the show unwinds and reveals its mysteries, audiences will come to realize that we're already part of The Process.
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