3 Body Problem Review: Hard Sci-Fi That Could Have Gone Even Harder

Netflix's adaptation of the modern sci-fi classic The Three-Body Problem takes awhile to reach terminal velocity.

3 Body Problem. Zine Tseng as Young Ye Wenjie in episode 102 of 3 Body Problem.
Photo: Ed Miller | Netflix

This 3 Body Problem review contains no spoilers.

Beginning with HBO‘s epic Game of Thrones and continuing with Netflix sci-fi effort 3 Body Problem, producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have come to understand an important shortcut in adapting literature for television: keep as much of the good stuff as you can.

Though latter seasons of Thrones deviated significantly from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (mostly due to the fact that Martin couldn’t get the final two books in on time…or maybe ever), the early seasons stuck close to the novels’ rich world. Game of Thrones season 1 is a damn-near carbon copy of the book A Game of Thrones, give or take a Littlefinger monologue here or a “Tyrion slept through the battle” there.

Game of Thrones‘ writers, led by Benioff and Weiss, excelled when they operated as ardent fans of the original material who just wanted to see what they loved so much in print rendered onscreen. It may seem like an obvious strategy now but at the time it was anything but. Martins’ books were long considered unadaptable due to their scope. Game of Thrones threw caution to the wind and just opted to get as much good stuff from the books into the show as HBO’s budgets allowed.

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With 3 Body Problem, Benioff, Weiss, and co-creator Alexander Woo face down the prospect of an “unadaptable” book once again. First published in China in 2008, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (no, we don’t know why Netflix opted for the numeral “3” over the word “Three”) is the first installment in a science fiction trilogy known as Remembrance of Earth’s Past but more commonly referred to as “The Three-Body Problem series.”

Cixin Liu’s books aren’t as big as Martin’s tomes – both in terms of page count and depth – but their focus is on a literal universal level. The Three-Body Problem is about humanity making first contact with alien life and all of the complicated science and politics that go along with that. The trilogy can safely be considered “hard sci-fi,” a nebulous term often deployed to refer to stories that revel in the scientific processes of sci-fi as much as they do the fiction.

It’s the kind of thing that would be a nightmare to adapt for television. And yet, it’s now been adapted twice, first as the 2023 Chinese series Three-Body and now as Netflix’s 3 Body Problem. We can’t speak to the former’s approach to the material, but when it comes to the latter, the “hard sci-fi” works surprisingly well. Unfortunately the show doesn’t appear to realize it until late in its run.

Benioff, Weiss, Woo, and company seemingly lose their nerve when it comes to translating the wonky bits of Cixin Liu’s book and don’t trust the audience to immediately vibe with all of the heady mathematics. Jettisoning the novel’s one major Chinese scientist character in favor of five Western physicists known as the “Oxford Five,” 3 Body Problem initially opts for more human drama rather than scientific exploration. That change gets the eight-episode series off to a frustratingly slow start that it almost never recovers from.

3 Body Problem does begin in thrilling, enigmatic style with a flashback to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. During a struggle session at Beijing’s Tsinghua University in 1966, teenager Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng) is forced to confront the triumph of ideology over rationality as her peers rail against the anti-Communist evils of education. The series then comes back to the present day of London in 2024 where our five Oxford eggheads: Jin Cheng (Jess Hong), Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo), Auggie Salazar (Eiza Gonz├ílez), Jack Rooney (John Bradley), and Will Downing (Alex Sharp), all seek to figure out why science is suddenly “broken.” Every particle accelerator on the planet is producing results that conflict with the known laws of physics.

To make matters worse, prominent scientists are dying all over the world with investigator Da Shi (Benedict Wong) and his mysterious boss Wade (Liam Cunningham) leading the charge to get to get some answers. Ye Wenjie’s storyline in the past eventually intersects with the Oxford Five and company in the present and 3 Body Problem reveals itself to be about the most regrettable text message ever sent. There’s also a weird VR game and some visual hallucinations thrown in there for good measure.

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3 Body Problem really feels like a dud early on, indulging in the mortal sin that afflicts many streaming television shows of late: it’s boring. Despite its creators’ ample television background, the show treats its first two and half episodes as disposable building blocks upon which to build a story rather than stories themselves. The biggest issue lies with the Oxford Five. Though there are commendable performances to be found here (chiefly that of Alex Sharp’s Will Downing), the scientists just don’t spend enough time science-ing.

Thankfully, 3 Body Problem eventually does get to the “good stuff” – and wouldn’t you know it: it’s all the hard sci-fi mumbo jumbo the show seemed to fear so much at first. The back half of the season is consistently compelling, and sometimes downright thrilling, especially any time its characters simply put their heads together to solve the three-body problem at hand. The complicated scientific concepts at play rarely come across as too challenging or alienating. If anything, they often enhance the drama. On a lesser show, “the bad thing that was going to happen” would happen imminently. On 3 Body Problem it’s not going to happen for 400 years because that’s how long the science says it would take. Rather than defusing tension, the terrifyingly long wait only ratchets it up.

That’s not to say that 3 Body Problem is all people in white lab coats staring at computers (though I admittedly would watch that show). There is an action sequence in the season’s fifth episode that rivals the best Game of Thrones battles despite featuring little more than a barely visible nano fiber. In its final three episodes, the show becomes hard to turn off and more than lives up to Netflix’s bingeable mission statement. It also ends on a satisfyingly incomplete note, suggesting that producers are quite confident in a season 2 (and eventually 3) renewal.

With a little more confidence in its subject matter, 3 Body Problem could have been a transcendent sci-fi experience. As things stand, it’s still a satisfying physics lesson.

All eight episodes of 3 Body Problem are available to stream on Netflix.

Rating:

3 out of 5