3 Body Problem review: Netflix’s would-be sci-fi epic is middling at best

Jess Hong as Jin Cheng in 3 Body Problem. (Netflix)
Jess Hong as Jin Cheng in 3 Body Problem, the pseudo-hero of the Netflix series. (Netflix)

In Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss took on the challenge of adapting the "unadaptable", and made a runaway hit as a result. A series that changed the game completely (until its final two seasons, at least), but the question is can they do the same with 3 Body Problem?

Cixin Liu's iconic sci-fi novel is a notoriously difficult book to read, so adapting it wouldn’t be an easy task, but Weiss and Benioff were determined to give it a go for Netflix alongside fellow creator Alexander Woo. The pay-off isn't quite as impactful as their genre-defining predecessor, unfortunately.

Read more: What to watch on Netflix in March 2024

The series follows a group of long-time friends who are some of the greatest minds in their scientific field, and find themselves at the heart of a conspiracy that will impact humanity for centuries. The strange deaths of scientists around the globe and otherworldly phenomena like the appearance of a doomsday clock are just some of the things they face, and all spell the arrival of an alien race... in 400 years.

Zine Tseng as Young Ye Wenjie in 3 Body Problem. (Netflix)
Zine Tseng as Young Ye Wenjie in 3 Body Problem, who makes a decision that will lead to the arrival of an alien invasion 400 years in the future. (Netflix)

How they came to target Earth stems from a fateful decision made by one person, Ye Wenjie (Rosalind Chao), during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The series begins during this tumultuous time, with the heartbreaking moment teen Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng) witnesses her astrophysics father be beaten to death for daring to teach the Big Bang Theory. It’s brutal and heart wrenching, and sets the tone for the series well — so it’s a shame the rest of the episodes can't keep this momentum.

While Benioff and Weiss were able to weave in the stories of a multitude of characters in Game of Thrones, 3 Body Problem struggles to do the same. The five friends at the centre of the story —Jin (Jess Hong), Saul (Jovan Adepo), Auggie (Eiza González), Jack (John Bradley), and Will (Alex Sharp)— can’t quite resonate, namely because the narrative only gives us a surface level understanding of them.

Given they are based on one character split into five perhaps this should have been expected, but when it’s hard to connect to a character it becomes difficult to care much for what they go through. Hong’s Jin is perhaps the exception to this, as the pseudo-hero of the piece she is interesting to follow because of Hong’s admirable performance.

Benedict Wong’s Da Shi and Liam Cunningham’s Wade are more noteworthy, namely thanks to their unexpectedly comedic portrayals of two grumpy men trying to get to the bottom of a puzzling mystery. The pair make for excellent scene partners, and they match each other’s energy well with their blunt delivery of their lines.

PROBLEME A 3 CORPS 3 BODY PROBLEM 2024 serie TV creee par David Benioff, D.B. Weiss et Alexander Woo saison 1 episode 2 John Bradley. Prod DB © Netfli
John Bradley as Jack in 3 Body Problem, which puts the science in science fiction. (Netflix)

The story itself is a conundrum all its own. It puts the science in science-fiction, and while mystery is the name of the game here early episodes are difficult to understand even given some leeway. For many scenes Jin and Jack are thrust into a VR world where the scientists are faced with a three-body problem plaguing another civilisation and must work to solve it before they’re all killed.

It’s a difficult scientific problem in reality, and it’s not until the characters get to the bottom of why they’re trying to do what they’re tasked with that we get any real understanding of the main story. This, sadly, makes it hard to become invested in it.

Episode 5 does pick up the pace nicely though, delivering an absolutely brutal final sequence that will shock viewers with its audacious gore. While we won’t elaborate on what happens, it’s definitely a highlight of the series. But it also means that the show reaches its peak early, with the next three episodes doing its best to maintain pace but instead muddling its way towards the end.

That’s not to say 3 Body Problem is bad, the show is serviceable sci-fi. It doesn’t have quite the same epic scope of shows like Foundation, or the compelling characters of The Expanse, but it is enjoyable for the most part. Whether it’ll be memorable beyond its initial release is hard to say though, as the show is middling at best.

  • 📺 Where to watch 3 Body Problem: Netflix on Thursday, 21 March

  • ⭐️ Our rating: 3/5

  • 🍿 Watch it if you liked: Foundation, Westworld, Game of Thrones

  • 🎭 Who's in it?: Jess Hong, Benedict Wong, Jovan Adepo, Eiza González, John Bradley, Alex Sharp, Liam Cunningham, Jonathan Pryce 

  • How long is it? 8 x 50-1hr minute episodes

  • 📖 What’s it about? After her father is brutally murdered during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie makes a decision that will impact all of humanity, and in the present day five scientists feel the ramifications of it deeply.

Watch the trailer for 3 Body Problem: