Netflix Launches Ambitious, Engaging Adaptation of 3 Body Problem


If you’ve been missing the mind f*ck properties of HBO’s “Westworld,” Netflix has a show for you. You know that feeling that so many streaming shows sag due to having too few ideas for their episode order? What’s the opposite of that? “3 Body Problem,” based on the Liu Cixin sci-fi series of the same name, has so many things going on that it’s almost difficult to keep up with it. And yet right when it feels like it’s going to get dragged down by too much futuristic mumbo-jumbo, it grounds itself again with smart character work that conveys the micro stakes of, well, the most important events in recorded history. It’s a show that takes massive narrative swings, killing major characters, jumping in time, shifting focus, and changing direction. It defies the Netflix sag by being defiantly confident in its strange vision of interstellar communication and what that would do to foundational elements of humanity like science and religion.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss know a thing or two about wrestling a sprawling franchise into television form, having changed the medium with “Game of Thrones.” They’re joined by Alexander Woo (“True Blood”) in the creation of “3 Body Problem,” a show about what so much sci-fi has speculated on since its inception: contact. It starts with a series of deaths in the scientific community, which brings together a friend group of scientists that includes Jin Cheng (Jess Hong), Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo), Auggie Salazar (Elza Gonzalez), Jack Rooney (John Bradley), and Will Downing (Alex Sharp). Of course, there are relationship dynamics within this crew, including Will’s unrequited love for Jin, but there are more pressing concerns when Auggie starts seeing a literal countdown before her eyes.  What’s it counting down to? And how is she seeing it? Things get weirder when she encounters a mysterious woman who can be scrubbed from all cameras. And then the stars blink. And everyone sees that.

To say that’s the tip of the weird iceberg would be an understatement. “3 Body Problem” also flashes back to the Cultural Revolution in China to introduce us to Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng), a young scientist who makes a universe-changing decision that ripples forward to the present-day protagonists. The great Benedict Wong plays an investigator trying to figure out exactly what is going on while Liam Cunningham and Jonathan Pryce do the mysterious figure thing that they do so well.

Without spoiling too much, “3 Body Problem” is essentially about future anxiety. The characters learn that something is going to happen hundreds of years from now and they better do something today to minimize its impact on humanity—the echo of climate change seems pretty obvious to this viewer in the concept of pending doom that may be far away, but not far enough to ignore. Like so much great interstellar sci-fi, “3 Body Problem” gets super interesting when it dissects the impact instead of the reality. What would knowledge that we are not alone do to religion? What would it do to science? When “3 Body Problem” pivots to the idea that science is the only thing that can save us from the pending doom the climate change parallel gets even stronger.

However, what works best about “3 Body Problem” is that you don’t really have to consider all of these deeper themes to enjoy it. It works on a superficial sci-fi level too with crazy character twists and solid performances throughout. Adepo, Sharp, Wong and Cunningham are particularly strong, and the craft is undeniable. Not only does it have the “GoT” team, directors like Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E”) and Minkie Spiro (“The Plot Against America”) know how to pace and design this kind of high-level science fiction. It’s been a while since Netflix had a show that felt like it might be interesting for multiple seasons other than “Love is Blind.” This one might have solved that problem.

“3 Body Problem” premieres on Netflix on March 21, 2024. Whole season screened for review.

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