‘3 Body Problem’ Review: Netflix’s Lofty Sci-Fi Series From ‘Game of Thrones’ Showrunners Gets Off to a Lukewarm Start

David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and “True Blood” writer Alexander Woo team up to turn Cixin Liu’s dense novel into watercooler TV

Jess Hong and John Bradley in "3 Body Problem." (Ed Miller/Netflix)

At the start of “3 Body Problem,” scientists around the world are dying by suicide. Ominous countdowns have begun to appear before people’s eyes. And the stars are flickering on and off. All of the known rules of science no longer apply. Something is changing beyond the solar system, and the solution to it all lies in a mysterious video game whose rules must be figured out before total chaos takes over.

It’s been five years since “Game of Thrones” came to an end, and every network has been chasing after the next big thing to fill the gap left behind. It’s debatable as to whether we’ll ever have another watercooler series that general audiences will rally around with the same enthusiasm, but there are certainly some strong contenders for that gap in the market for epic yet accessible genre grandeur. It only makes sense that one of the latest offerings would come from the same creators of the phenomenon HBO drama series.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss certainly haven’t tempered their ambitions with their latest series, a vast-reaching adaptation of the award-winning Chinese sci-fi novel by Cixin Liu with “True Blood” writer Alexander Woo. “3 Body Problem” is part crime thriller, part alternate universe historical drama, and part space opera with a cyberpunk twist. Where “Game of Thrones” thrived on a mixture of soap opera and sex-and-violence political intrigue, this series tries to balance the visceral and the cerebral. Hardcore fans of Westeros might find themselves skeptical about a story far more concerned with the grander picture than the human drama, but this reimagining of a heavy text has much to admire.

Jumping between several times and locations, primarily China and the UK, “3 Body Problem” has lofty ideas and a Netflix budget to explore them. The opening introduces Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng), a young woman who watches on helplessly as her scientist father is brutally murdered during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Several years later, smeared as a traitor, she finds herself conscripted for a top secret mission in the middle of nowhere. A secret radar base broadcasts messages into the unknown, hoping to make contact with extraterrestrial life before the capitalist Americans can. Several decades later and Detective Da Shi (Benedict Wong) has been tasked with investigating one of dozens of suicides of renowned scientists across the planet. Connected in this web are a group of former students to one of these scientists, a reclusive billionaire (Jonathan Pryce), and the elderly Ye (Rosalind Chao.)

Unlike the novel, which took place entirely in China and with Chinese characters, Benioff and Weiss centered the story on a multicultural ensemble that includes Eiza González, Jovan Adepo and John Bradley (the latter of whom plays Jack Rooney, a snacks mogul whose comedic interruptions are needless and tiresome.) They each have their own problems — casual drug use, childhood trauma, a recent cancer diagnosis — before becoming embroiled in a worldwide mystery that has undone all of their years of scientific research. Dividing up various plot points between these characters rather than the sole figure in the novels makes sense, but some supporting players, like Alex Sharp’s Will Downing, are left to the sidelines for much of the season. Jess Hong gets the breakout role as Jin Cheng, the physicist who is first inducted into the world of the video game of the “3 Body Problem.”

The title refers to both the key scientific issue of the narrative and a video game, played on strange headsets that look like something from “Neuromancer.” The game imagines a strange world where players must figure out why the planet is destroyed over and over again. These scenes allow for some of the most visually stunning moments from the series, with some of the best VFX work Netflix has ever done. Each level in this curious system is full of vast-reaching lands and often millions of people acting out code like a human computer. Jin’s game is initially styled as an arid desert in ancient China, while Jack’s is Tudor England. Other gamers bump up against them with new theories and those who fail face horrific punishment.

Sea Shimooka in “3 Body Problem.” (Netflix)

Frankly, not enough of the series takes place in this realm, which includes some gnarly moments of body horror, and what takes up a huge chunk of the book is done by Episode 2.

There’s a lot of ground to cover, and it is impressive how much of the novel the creative team condensed into eight hours without omitting crucial details. That does lead to a lot of scenes of people talking about stuff they don’t have any real answers to, but this is a dense season where the viewer doesn’t have to wait long before something intriguing comes around the corner. If you don’t care about calculus, there’s a murder in the next scene, then Jonathan Pryce whispering messages to someone he calls his Lord. But this show is no slow burn, which makes it endlessly watchable, although you sometimes yearn for a breather to let us soak in more of these various worlds, real or otherwise. By the time it’s halfway through the first season, they’re almost done with the book but feel as though they’ve barely scratched the surface.

While the series has been made more universal than the novel, it thankfully hasn’t been stripped of its cultural context. This is still mostly a Chinese story, wherein the Cultural Revolution and crushing nihilism it inspires in Ye provide the catalyst for the alien exploration. It’s been simplified but not to the point of stupidity. Although it isn’t as expansive as the novel, which spends much of its length delving into the specificities of Chinese history and scientific discovery.

Eiza González, Jess Hong, Saamer Usmani, Jovan Adepo and Alex Sharp in “3 Body Problem.” (Ed Miller/Netflix)

It’s rare to see this kind of hard sci-fi on-screen, with the financial foundations in place to fully realize what is a complex and brazen vision of our world. “3 Body Problem” eventually reveals itself to be about a seemingly unstoppable plan to decimate humanity’s autonomy in the name of helping them, of rendering a planet powerless so that others can “do the right thing.” Even in the book, it’s a tough sell, and this adaptation tries to fit so much stuff into one season that the stakes feel off. It’s hard to fully buy Ye’s choices after less than two hours of the audience knowing her, and the ecosystem of rival sects and ultra-sophisticated technology that follows are barely explored afterwards. One wonders if Netflix was afraid a more unhurried pace would turn off viewers eager to just get to the good stuff.

There’s much to appreciate in “3 Body Problem” thanks to that scale and those infrequent moments of pure spectacle, and they have certainly made a decent case for a second season to bring in the other books of the trilogy. As to whether or not Benioff and Weiss can make lightning strike twice? They’re close but the spark isn’t there yet.

“3 Body Problem” premieres Thursday, March 21, on Netflix.


One response to “‘3 Body Problem’ Review: Netflix’s Lofty Sci-Fi Series From ‘Game of Thrones’ Showrunners Gets Off to a Lukewarm Start”

  1. Zompar Avatar

    “… reveals itself to be about a seemingly unstoppable plan to decimate humanity’s autonomy in the name of helping them, of rendering a planet powerless so that others can “do the right thing.” Even in the book, it’s a tough sell…”
    That is just wrong and definitely not the book’s plot. The author of this review did apparently not read the book, which is ok in my eyes, as this is a review of the TV series. But then comparing it to or referencing from the book I find problematic.

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