‘3 Body Problem’ Review: Binge Worthy and Brainy

Sea Shimooka in 3 Body Problem. COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Five years after their goal-line fumble of the massively popular HBO series Game of Thrones, writer-producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are finally back in business, once again adapting a dense, ambitious, and celebrated work of genre fiction. 3 Body Problem is a Netflix series based on a trilogy of novels by Cixin Liu, the first author from Asia to capture the coveted Hugo Award for Best Novel. It’s considered groundbreaking in the world of sci-fi literature, but compared to the violent and horny world of Westeros, Liu’s work isn’t exactly sexy, nor is it a natural fit for television. It’s slow, it’s heady, and like so much sci-fi lit, it assumes a deep interest in physics and engineering that most people do not share. However, by taking some serious liberties with the source text, Benioff, Weiss, and their new collaborator Alexander Woo have successfully adapted 3 Body Problem into a binge-worthy sci-fi thriller and a surprisingly warm character drama. It won’t be setting the internet ablaze or launching a massive merchandising empire, but it should, at least, help to clear the stench of Benioff and Weiss’s public failures.

Vedette Lim in 3 Body Problem. COURTESY OF NETFLIX

3 Body Problem’s big twists come early and often, to the extent that it’s difficult to describe the show without spoilers. An agent of the British government (Benedict Wong) is investigating a string of bizarre suicides among the scientific elite. After this epidemic claims the life of one of their own, a tight-knit group of Oxford-educated physicists searches for answers and makes a terrible discovery that will change the course of history. The clues to the grander mystery are hidden in a virtual reality game centered around an advanced physics problem and lead back to a scientific genius (Zine Tseng) who was held as a political prisoner in revolutionary China.

The series inherits the novels’ sense of foreboding and some terrific sci-fi horror concepts that translate perfectly to screen but puts more weight on the relationships between the Oxford Five, a collection of brilliant scholars who bonded at university but whose lives have taken them in divergent directions. As the grander existential threat rears its head, the ties and conflicts between two members of this found family grow more and more urgent. Occasionally this sense of tenderness is interrupted by shocking graphic violence or narrative cruelty that will remind you that 3 Body Problem’s showrunners used to work on Game of Thrones and True Blood.

Yang Hewen and Zine Tseng in 3 Body Problem. COURTESY OF NETFLIX

While the novel’s backstory set during and after the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s is faithfully transposed to screen, the TV version moves the present-day action from China to the UK. This change will no doubt attract accusations of whitewashing, as the first book’s protagonist is essentially split into five new characters, only one of whom has a Chinese background. I’ll happily leave that discussion to more culturally qualified critics, but regardless of the ethnicity of the new central characters, turning 3 Body into an ensemble drama is essential to making this story work on television. The plot and themes imported from the novel are hard, heavy stuff, and the book delivers them through the perspective of lonely, isolated people. As a reader, you get to live inside of these characters’ heads, to become their companions and confidants. On television, it’s difficult to become attached to a character who lacks any attachments of their own. The series adds friendship, romance, and interpersonal conflict, the fuel on which good television runs. (If you’re looking for a more faithful screen adaptation of 3 Body, Chinese streaming service Tencent Video released one last year.)

To an extent, 3 Body Problem was always going to play differently for an American audience. While some of its themes are universal, such as humanity’s responsibility to the planet and the natural fear and awe of a higher power, it’s also a story that positions Earth as an empire in decline, poised for collapse or conquest. The idea that we, as a species, have had our shot, and now our time is almost up hits different in the U.S., where we are living through the end of our tenure atop the global hegemony. Imagine if the next superpower wasn’t another country with whom we share some human values, but something else entirely. What do you do with that fear? How would it change your life? The exploration of these questions, more than its grand physical thought experiments, is what makes 3 Body Problem a rewarding experience. 

‘3 Body Problem’ premieres on Netflix on March 21. 

‘3 Body Problem’ Review: Netflix Sci-Fi Thriller is Binge Worthy and Brainy

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