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Netflix's '3 Body Problem' Has One Storyline Too Many


Cast of 3 Body Problem
Courtesy of Netflix

This review contains spoilers for the first season of 3 Body Problem. 


Netflix’s adaptation of the award-winning science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem condenses Liu Cixin’s towering story of alien contact into eight uneven episodes of streaming television. The series, helmed by Alexander Woo and Game of Thrones’ co-creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, stars an ensemble cast that includes Benedict Wong, Rosalind Chao, Jess Hong, Liam Cunningham, Eiza González, Sea Shimooka, and Jonathan Pryce. 


With a title streamlined simply to 3 Body Problem, this version of the story transports viewers from modern-day China to contemporary England as five friends and former physics students, nicknamed the “Oxford Five,” are brought together by the death of their former mentor to investigate several supernatural events throwing the scientific community and whole world into chaos. When a greater intergalactic conspiracy is uncovered, they also contend with top-level government agencies and mysterious cult worshippers who bring gruesome violence to their doorsteps.


The show struggles to fit the many disparate plotlines from all three books of the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, of which The Three-Body Problem is just the first, into a mere eight episodes. Viewers may get whiplash from whipping past character choices and major reveals. Additionally, echoing classic Game of Thrones un-sentimentality, characters who are introduced early and first appear to be part of the main cast are killed off quickly, barely on-screen long enough for viewers to really care about their backstories or relationships to other key characters. 


Fortunately, underrated talents like Wong (playing Clarence, an ex-MI5 investigator), Chao (playing Dr. Ye, a rebel scientist-turned-cult leader), and newcomer Hong (playing physicist Jin Cheng, the most central character) are given their time to shine in their more prominent roles. Others, like González — who has caught a lot of undeserved flak online for playing the unusually beautiful, but annoyingly self-righteous, genius materials engineer Auggie (scientists can be hot, too!) — and other members of the Oxford Five have a little less to work with as they are sidelined with smaller, inconsequential problems than Earth’s upcoming alien invasion. 


There has been some discussion online about the decision to change the setting of the original story from China to England for the show, and to cast a more diverse ensemble, merging some book characters for the on-screen adaptation. Personally, I don’t see a problem with widening the story’s scope to a more international one — it's human against aliens when it comes down to it. Some have even criticized the show’s lack of Asian male actors. However, the showrunners should be recognized for platforming a veteran performer like the Salford-born Wong, who for the first time in his long career, was allowed to use his own Mancunian accent.


It should also be pointed out that 3 Body Problem retains key scenes set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution that provide necessary insight into Dr. Ye’s character. They go towards explaining why she commits to her drastic decision to invite a technologically superior alien civilization to Earth. 


Interestingly, the source material itself was altered for publication, moving these crucial scenes from the beginning to the middle of the book to appear more palatable to Chinese censors; the Netflix adaptation moves them back to their original place, honouring the author’s initial intent. While the show could have spent extra time on Dr. Ye’s rise to cult-leader-status alongside her partner Mike Evans (Pryce), it manages to establish a compelling backstory with authentic cultural significance. 


Another of 3 Body Problem’s strengths is how it simplifies excitingly heady sci-fi concepts like its titular solution-less physics problem, quantum entanglement, or higher dimensions. It renders grand scientific ideas in impressive ways, using a virtual reality game to show viewers strange new worlds and situations. 


The series also adds a liberal dose of body horror into the mix, aided by alien power and impossible technology that burns, desiccates, and slices people in increasingly disturbing ways. After a while, however, the show drops these jaw-dropping visuals to muddle through uninspired moral dilemmas and fast-track intergalactic warfare with a somewhat unsatisfying finale. 


If given a couple more episodes, the show may have had more time to add depth to its characters instead of zipping through plot points across Liu’s trilogy. For now, the first season almost feels like table-setting for a mind-bending alien encounter 400 years into the future. While 3 Body Problem has big ambitions akin to its in-universe sophons, a.k.a. multidimensional supercomputers, the execution is hampered by time (and space).

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