3 Body Problem review – the creators of Game of Thrones have done it again

<span>Intriguing … Jess Hong as Jin and John Bradley as Jack in 3 Body Problem.</span><span>Photograph: Ed Miller/Netflix</span>
Intriguing … Jess Hong as Jin and John Bradley as Jack in 3 Body Problem.Photograph: Ed Miller/Netflix

Well, hello again to Game of Thrones’ David “Unfilmable books a speciality!” Benioff and DB “Likewise!” Weiss! This time they are on Netflix, with an adaptation of the hardest of hard sci-fi tomes, Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (the first in a trilogy called Remembrance of Earth’s Past). The eight-part series is near-named after the book as 3 Body Problem and opens with a truly harrowing scene of a Maoist struggle in which an eminent professor of physics, who has fallen foul of the Chinese Cultural revolutionaries for teaching the principles of western science, is beaten to death on stage in front of his wife – who denounces him as he is killed – while his appalled daughter and protege, Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng), watches in the audience. One of the timelines follows her as she is sent first to a forced labour camp in Inner Mongolia and then, when her astrophysicist skills are needed, to a mysterious scientific project (lots of buttons, big satellite dish) on its outskirts.

In the present day, particle accelerators around the world have started delivering results that make a mockery of all known physical laws and eminent scientists are killing themselves – or looking as if they’ve killed themselves – at what is mathematically known as a rate of knots. These “suicides” are being investigated by ex-cop Da Shi (Benedict Wong, the acceptance of whose transition to dramatic roles after 15 Storeys High I still find harder than understanding the three body problem itself, regardless of his excellence here). He reports to Thomas Wade (Liam Cunningham), a shadowy figure who is working for (or is possibly the head of) an even more shadowy secret authority bent on preserving humanity. Or not. I think.

Anyway. One of the mysterious deaths brings a group of five former students of the deceased teacher back together. It comprises underachieving borderline nihilist genius Saul (Jovan Adepo), engineering supremo Auggie (Eiza González) who is on the verge of a world-changing breakthrough in nanofibre technology, brilliant theoretical physicist Jin (Jess Hong), relative dropout Will (Alex Sharp), who now teaches science to high schoolers but is as in love with Jin as he was in their university days, and Jack (John Bradley), who sold out to make a fortune from snack foods and whose wealth is going to come in handy later. And who was their late teacher? Vera Ye (Vedette Lim), the daughter of the daughter in the audience who watched her father being killed in 1966 Beijing. The first of what promises to be many, many links looping together, back over themselves, and round about again is forged.

Soon, Auggie is visited by or starts hallucinating a countdown to what appears to be her own death – and only renouncing her nanofibre ambitions will halt it. An impossibly advanced virtual reality game comes into play and may or may not be connected with the death of Vera and the other scientists. Characters appear who don’t show up on CCTV and who seem to know more about other characters and the future than they should. More worryingly, an increasing number of whiteboards and blackboards start being wheeled out by people purporting to explain a growing number of higher dimensional geometric operations, orbital mechanics, the “Wow! signal” and all sorts of other reminders of something very important. No matter how much human interest an adaptation team brings to a book about abstruse and abstract physics there will still be knotty problems we are all going to have to do our best to understand.

Nevertheless, 3 Body Problem does well to pull us onward, as much through the relentless, but never overplayed, suffering and hardening of Ye Wenjie as she endures her effective imprisonment in the project grounds – and the stealing of her work by others – as by the present day mystery. It looks great, it soon has Jonathan Pryce joining proceedings as Mike Evans, an eco activist turned reclusive oil tycoon billionaire, and the answers to the mystery of who (and what) the extraordinary forces are, what they want and who summoned them are doled out at a fair pace.

But it can’t quite get rid of the cold abstraction that was at the heart of the books and which is revered by its fans. It’s impressive, it is – at its best – intriguing, but the threat is distant metaphorically and literally. There are puzzles to solve, if you are capable, but nothing and no one to root for. Even its design as a metaphor for the climate crisis and human inertia in the face of potential doom doesn’t give it enough heft – in fact, such is the way of these things, it may even serve to alienate us further from emotional engagement. It won’t be Netflix’s answer to Game of Thrones. But Benioff, Weiss, and their collaborator Alexander Woo have undoubtedly proved yet again that there is no such thing as an unfilmable novel.

• 3 Body Problem is on Netflix