Netflix’s 3 Body Problem review: an solid debut that could go deeper

In his 2008 sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu created a fascinating world where cutting-edge particle physics, VR gaming, and Chinese history played crucial roles in shaping humanity’s response to an imminent planet-wide threat. It also seemed unfilmable. The depth of the book’s ideas about cultural memory and the complexity of its central mystery made The Three-Body Problem feel like a story that could only work on the page.

That hasn’t stopped streamers from trying, and last year, Tencent debuted its own live-action, episodic take on Liu’s book. Netflix spent a fortune putting 3 Body Problem in the hands of executive producers David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, and Alexander Woo. Their adaptation is leaner and more diverse than the book in a way that makes it a very different kind of story. Often, it’s a good one — and very occasionally a great one — that works as an introductory crash course to the basic ideas key to understanding the larger concepts that shape Liu’s later books. 

But rather than confronting the sophistication of the book, Netflix’s main priority with 3 Body Problem seems to be selling it as the next Game of Thrones (Benioff and Weiss’ last series). And while it’s easy to understand why the streamer might want that, it’s hard not to see the show as a flashy but stripped-down version of the source material.

3 Body Problem involves a constellation of distinct narratives spanning multiple decades and generations. But at its core, the show is a compelling thriller about how the sins of humanity’s past come to shape its future. In a world where the scientific community has been rocked by an alarming wave of mysterious suicides, private intelligence officer Clarence Shi (Benedict Wong) and a group of researchers get swept up in a race to save the planet from destruction. 

As a former agent of both MI5 and Scotland Yard, Clarence is no stranger to shadowy plots. But he’s vastly out of his depth in the worlds of cutting-edge theoretical physics and materials engineering. Meanwhile, scientist Jin Cheng (Jess Hong) is also navigating uncharted waters as she struggles to make sense of what’s happening to her peers and why many experiments involving particle accelerators are going wrong. The panic of the present day pushes Jin to reconnect with her four best college friends, and the dynamic of the reunited “Oxford Five” inches closer to revealing a world-ending threat.

Given the structural complexity of Liu’s books, it isn’t surprising that Netflix’s 3 Body is streamlined in a much more linear fashion that makes it feel like Lost-style mystery-within-a-mystery you’re figuring out alongside Clarence. But it’s actually in 3 Body Problem’s core group of characters that you can most clearly see the steps Benioff, Weiss, and Woo took to rework Liu’s ideas for a more global audience.

Before the book’s story in present-day China really gets going, Liu spends quite a bit of time in the past in order to give you a better grasp of the Cultural Revolution, the Maoist movement to purge society of capitalists and intellectuals. It’s the Party’s reversal of these horrifying policies — instead embracing academia and scientific research — that sets China on a path to become a global superpower. And as the book moves into the present, that historical context helps you appreciate why a sudden and sustained spike in inexplicable scientist suicides would prompt the government to deploy counter-terrorism operatives to investigate.

In the novel, much of the early mystery is rooted in the fact that its characters — like offputting former detective Shi Qiang (often referred to as “Da Shi”) and nanomaterials specialist Wang Miao — are solving it in isolation. Netflix’s answer to Da Shi, Clarence, is now British and a softer, more contemplative presence than his curmudgeon literary counterpart. The show also splits Wang’s character into the Oxford Five, an ethnically diverse group of friends consisting of Jin, research assistant Saul (Jovan Adepo), nanotech expert Auggie (Eiza González), physics teacher Will (Alex Sharp), and snack magnate Jack (John Bradley).

The Oxford Five and Jin’s partner Raj Varma.
Image: Netflix

Making characters fumble in the darkness on their way to solving the puzzle of Three-Body was one of the many ways Liu mirrored, on a microscopic level, the book’s larger ideas about the power of collaborative efforts versus the control that comes from individual decision-making. But because the show’s Oxford Five are all friends (and former lovers in some instances) who quickly begin working together, relationships drive the plot forward more than its existential puzzle. These changes bring a new level of interpersonal drama to Netflix’s show that isn’t present in the book, especially for Auggie, who’s haunted by visions of a glowing countdown that seems to be seared onto her retinas. Dividing Wang into five distinct characters emphasizes the idea that there’s power in looking at complicated problems from a diverse array of unique perspectives.

But because the Oxford Five are all based on a single character and spend so much time talking each other through theories about what’s going on, scenes focused on them often feel the show taking a moment to spell out plot points in ways that feel clumsy and inorganic. This is less the case when 3 Body Problem shifts its focus to the past and zeroes in on the life of Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng), a promising young astrophysicist whose entire world is upended by the onset of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Like in the book, 3 Body Problem truly begins with Ye and how the personal choices she makes — all informed by her experiences as a survivor of the Revolution — have an incalculable impact on the future at a worldwide scale.

In both the book and Netflix’s adaptation, Ye’s story is a powerful one that contextualizes the present in important ways. But the show is less willing to dwell in it. Rather than consider the political and personal effects of the Revolution, the series commits to being a thinky but easily digestible chronicle of the world readying itself for war. An older version of Ye (Rosalind Chao) sticks around as 3 Body Problem to watch events unfold with a knowing solemnity. 

Sea Shimooka as Sophon, an NPC from the Three-Body game.
Image: Netflix

Meanwhile, the show invests in the messy lives of the Oxford Five and their flirtations with a futuristic piece of technology that plunges its wearer into an unimaginable world of riddles, mathematics, and roleplaying. The headset also gives the show a way of stepping outside the confines of the detective genre and into an otherworldly space that has the recognizable markers of science fiction, like planets with multiple suns. Smartly, 3 Body Problem balances out some of that predictability by placing many of its most imaginative, impossible set pieces in the game where the uncanny combo of Netflix’s signature visual look and an inordinate amount of shiny VFX. And it actually works as a plus rather than a minus here because of how unsettling playing the game is supposed to feel.

There are at least a few truly breathtaking action sequences unevenly sprinkled throughout 3 Body Problem’s first season. But for all their terrifying beauty, they’re not quite enough to keep the show from feeling like Netflix’s adequate attempt at distilling a literary masterpiece into eight hours of television. 3 Body Problem’s first season works as a solid introduction to this world, but by the finale, it becomes clear that these episodes are really just laying the groundwork for an even bigger, more deeply complicated narrative. With the right plan, tapping into the wildness of Liu’s later books could definitely take 3 Body Problem to its next level in future seasons. But that’s all going to depend on whether the show takes off.

3 Body Problem also stars Sea Shimooka, Marlo Kelly, Saamer Usmani, and Eve Ridley. The series is now streaming on Netflix.

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