‘3 Body Problem’ Review: Netflix’s Ambitious Sci-Fi Adaptation Is More Serviceable Than Dazzling

Publicity materials for Netflix’s new sci-fi drama 3 Body Problem refer to Benedict Wong’s character, a slightly rough-around-the-edges investigator with cross-jurisdictional concerns, as “Da Shi.”

It’s a nod to Liu Cixin’s novel of roughly the same title, in which the delightfully uncouth Shi Quiang is referred to as Da Shi (“Big Shi”) as a term of endearment. But nobody who hasn’t read the book will know why Wong’s character is being described that way, since he’s now a British-born character less mythically named “Clarence.” The character in the series is perfectly entertaining, but he doesn’t stand out iconoclastically in even a similar way. He’s flatter, less surprising and generally a lot more conventional.

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David Benioff, D. B. Weiss and Alexander Woo’s adaptation of 3 Body Problem knows that it should aspire to be Da Shi. It’s based on a literary series with a unique cultural context and built around some dazzlingly complex ideas. In order to reach the widest possible Netflix audience, that cultural context has been completely universalized and most of the biggest ideas, which remain too frequently as vestigial references, have been sanded down to purposeless traces of coolness instead of integral elements.

I think there’s an exact middle ground of viewers who want their sci-fi to have spectacle but not too much grandeur, and to have science but not too much rigor, that will feel well-serviced by 3 Body Problem. Fun but not fun enough and smart but not smart enough, these first eight episodes may aspire to be “Da Shi,” but what they tend to be is “Clarence.”

The series begins in 1966 in Beijing as Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng), a budding astrophysicist, watches her scholar father stand humiliating and horrifying public trial for the sin of teaching “the counter-revolutionary Big Bang theory.” She’s shuffled off to a re-education rural work camp, where she’s introduced to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the idea that “in nature, nothing exists alone.” This notion of human connectivity is also taboo and will be relevant later.

Cut to present-day London. Scientists at research’s bleeding edge are killing themselves around the globe, producing a trail of bodies and cryptic leads pursued by the largely mystique-free Clarence (Wong).

Five former classmates from Oxford reunite to make sense of this global puzzle. Once, all five showed tremendous promise. Jin (Jess Hong) is a theoretical physicist at the vanguard of the field. Once the smartest in the group, Saul (Jovan Adepo) has stagnated and remains a research assistant, more interested in getting high and getting laid. Will (Alex Sharp) hit a plateau and now teaches physics to high schoolers. Auggie (Eiza González) left physics behind and she’s now a nanotech pioneer, developing little things that can cut slightly larger things into smaller parts. And Jack (John Bradley) started a snack food brand and got rich.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Auggie begins having problems with her eyes. Specifically, she begins to see an unexplained countdown covering half of her field of vision, like a critic with an anti-piracy watermark on a high-profile screener.

Where did the countdown come from? What is it counting down to? What does it have to do with Ye Wenjie and a mountaintop observatory in China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution? What does it have to do with Clarence and his shady employer Thomas Wade (Liam Cunningham) or the even shadier and more mysterious billionaire Mike Evans (Jonathan Pryce)? And how is it related to a shiny virtual reality helmet that seems to play only one very confusing game set in a desert realm with three suns?

The short and VERY oblique answer is: Something very bad is coming, something that threatens all of humanity, very different from what Rachel Carson warned readers about, but an existential crisis nonetheless.

But that “something bad” is a long way off, which puts 3 Body Problem, book and series, in a thought-experiment genre alongside sci-fi works like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation franchise, books and series. It isn’t as simple as sending oil drillers onto an asteroid or sending Randy Quaid to a UFO with a computer virus. The question is partially “What do we do now?” But it’s much more “How do you get humanity to care about a threat that won’t impact them or their children or their children’s children?” How do you get humans to think on behalf of the multi-generational span of humanity rather than exclusively in terms of a limited lifespan?

Weiss & Benioff (Game of Thrones) and Woo (The Terror: Infamy) are in a tough place. Take away the teetering conceptual pieces of the book and there’s little that’s distinctive about 3 Body Problem as a science fiction brand. Overplay the conceptual pieces of the book and you’ve limited your audience to people who understand the three-body problem in orbital mechanics. Without any doubt, favoring accessibility over fidelity was the correct choice, but the traces of the distinctive elements become a bit like a hamburger that costs $100 because it comes with a piece of gold leaf on top. What did the gold leaf add to the hamburger? It lets you charge $100.

The effort is sometimes fairly admirable. I’d point to the third episode, written by Woo and directed by Andrew Stanton, as the best example of 3 Body Problem enthusiastically locking onto fascinating notions and visualizing them as well as I could imagine. This is the episode that goes the deepest into the world of the virtual reality game — full of historical personages, epic puzzles and dehydrated bodies — and lays the stakes out for the real world as well. More frequently, though, I’m guessing that television-only viewers are going to find the game and a lot of the footnote-y traces of the book to be either perplexing or purposeless. I truly don’t know how it could have been done better, but when a season reaches its brainy peak shortly before the half-way point, there’s a lot of increasingly perfunctory plotting to go.

The same problem impacts 3 Body Problem in terms of spectacle. It’s a generally handsome show and the aspects like the period scenes in China are impeccable in costume and production design (if extremely superficial in ideological terms). But this was meant to be a HUGE show for Netflix and it only sometimes looks huge. The ocular countdown, which needs to be a captivating and terrifying conceit, simply isn’t. The first episode ends with an unnatural natural phenomenon that leaves everybody in the show agog, but I guarantee no viewers will be agog (or probably understand). The series’ biggest set piece, which takes place near the Panama Canal, is amusing more for its gore than its large-scale execution (plus it’s in the service of a piece of strategy that makes no sense at all) and it comes in the fifth episode, leaving the rest of the season as a bit of an anti-climax.

The series isn’t devoid of good stuff. It’s just flat, with decorative touches, which extends to the characterizations and acting. Nobody in the ensemble is bad, but very few performances are memorable.

Really, the most entertaining version of the series is Wong and Cunningham being gruff together. I could watch hours of that.

The Oxford Five too often feel like exactly what they are: one character from a book split into five characters to add a diversity of perspective, sharing a single character’s worth of plot between them. Bradley is a source of badly needed humor. Hong, as close as the season comes to a real hero, is earnest and emotionally grounded. Adepo is perhaps too earnest, never exactly playing the burnout that the character is written as, which makes it much harder to see what should be a powerful arc in the season’s homestretch. González deserves credit for allowing herself to be the butt of the season’s funniest and harshest joke.

As the older version of the Ye Wenjie character, Rosalind Chao has a somber concern that’s both reassuring and unsettling, while I loved the wild-eyed energy that Marlo Kelly brings to Tatiana, a zealot with an unclear agenda. And I don’t know who had the close personal relationship with Pryce that convinced him to add his gravitas in a role that fails to materialize as anything sufficiently complex to be worth his presence.

Or maybe he, like Da Shi/Clarence, is another representative of what 3 Body Problem does both right and wrong. Because it’s never bad to have Jonathan Pryce in your TV series, but having Jonathan Pryce teases you with the promise of getting value out of Jonathan Pryce. Just like having hints of all these meaningful ideas and images teases you with the promise of getting value out of them, instead of something merely OK.

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