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‘3 Body Problem’ TV Review: Intergalactic Drama From ‘Game Of Thrones’ Creators Proves More Pedestrian Than Epic, And That’s A Real Problem – SXSW

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains some details of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem, set for an eight-episode launch on the streamer March 21.

“Why should I get bent out of shape about what the world might look like 400 years from now,” physics research assistant Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo) says flippantly in Netflix’s 3 Body Problem. “I have no control over that.”

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The sentiment of those words landed hard on me, because that’s almost exactly how I felt about the bloated and often remarkably boring big-budget sci-fi series from Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and True Blood producer Alexander Woo.

Premiering Friday night at SXSW in Austin’s Paramount Theatre, Netflix’s much-hyped series is based on the Hugo Award-winning writings of Cixin Liu. Set to launch with eight episodes worldwide almost everywhere but Liu’s native China on March 21, the fact is 3 Body Problem is pedestrian at best when it should be epic — and that’s a problem.

Here in the death throngs of Peak TV, this oddly small-scale saga of an alien invasion set to arrive centuries in the future is so philosophically pretentious it makes Matrix Resurrections look like Voltaire’s Candide. For those ardent critics of Game of Thrones‘ final season, of which I was not one, 3 Body Problem will engender more than a little bit of toldja – and should remind us all how rarely lightning strikes twice, if you know what I mean?

Ambling along from the murderous chaos of the Chinese Cultural revolution to a group of scientifically inclined Oxford pals in modern-day London, 3 Body Problem packs in immersive video games, crashing particle accelerators, strange suicides, Cape Canaveral and the United Nations (which also figures more powerful and influential in such sci-fi projects than it has for decades in the realpolitik of the real world). Despite all that, the first season of a clearly planned multi-cycle 3 Body Problem is at its heart a murder mystery that goes astray.

A murder mystery with nukes in space that guzzles Nembutal to become one of the most laconic would-be thrillers out there, with some bleached-out historical trauma thrown in.

(L to R) Eiza González as Auggie Salazar, Jess Hong as Jin Cheng, Saamer Usmani as Raj Varma, Jovan Adepo as Saul Durand, Alex Sharp as Will Downing, and John Bradley as Jack Rooney
(L to R) Eiza González as Auggie Salazar, Jess Hong as Jin Cheng, Saamer Usmani as Raj Varma, Jovan Adepo as Saul Durand, Alex Sharp as Will Downing, and John Bradley as Jack Rooney

Starring Adepo, Rosalind Chao, MCU alum Benedict Wong, Eiza González, Alex Sharp, Zine Tseng, Saamer Usmani, Jess Hong, Marlo Kelly and Sea Shimooka along with Westeros and Essos vets Jonathan Pryce, John Bradley and Liam Cunningham, 3 Body Problem wants to look and sound very important and very serious.

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It isn’t. What it is is something trying to be everything. A big book with many big ideas and swings shrunk like Superman’s Kandor into something digestible for the small screen. No matter how much money they try to get on the screen, 3 Body Problem’s biggest existential threats are just how redundant it all seems, and how every plot development can be seen from a galaxy away, like Omar Sharif coming over the desert on horseback in Lawrence of Arabia.

All adding up to, no matter how innovative the books that 3 Body Problem the TV series draws from are in the minds of many fans, the disappointing reality that the TV series is distinctly unoriginal.

For instance, here’s a non-spoiler example: 3BP is peppered with cameos from Jake Tapper and other CNN hosts performing the equivalent of exposition over and over. Their appearance is designed to give the show a real-world ambiance, I get that. Yet, let’s be honest, we’ve all seen it before in dozens end-of-the-world or alien-invasion flicks or series, whether the anchors in the background are from CNN, MSNBC or even Fox News. I mean dozens and dozens, to the point where there’s some degree, in a world of social media information overload that far outstrips cable news, it would more original to not have the talking heads.

In that sense, like a band looking to achieve greatness via the quality of its record collection, Netflix’s 3 Body Problem works best as a game of spot the influence.

Take some of the original War of the Worlds, a plethora of 1950s outer space B-movies, Independence Day, Deep Impact, and Arrival from the big screen. Then take some of Apple TV+’s Invasion, and most recently the excellent Korean series Duty After School, plus dust off Syfy’s Defiance, TNT’s Fallen Skies, the Francis Ford Coppola-EP’d First Wave from the small screen, with a few scoops of Stranger Things, the never to be forgotten Sense8, and the swollen Foundation.

If you are digging around for praise for the first season of 3 Body Problem, I will say, it does move at a slightly faster clip, and with a more coherent narrative that the 30-episode Chinese adaptation last year, at least from what I’ve seen of both shows. Truth be told though, the wonderful presence of the frequent wonderful Wong aside, that’s fairly faint praise for the new show compared to its Middle Kingdom predecessor — basically, on the level of which trying to gauge anecdotally which glacier melts faster.

Showrunners Benioff, Weiss and Woo have said that things really take off for 3 Body Problem down the line, just like GoT did. Like a show with lots of voice-over, such a warning is never ever a good sign. Also, at this point in the streaming multiverse, who has the patience for such sequential striptease?

When a first season is this dull and cliché heavy … shouldn’t somebody have taken control?

Title: 3 Body Problem
Festival: SXSW (TV Premiere)
Distributor: Netflix
Release date: March 21, 2024 (streaming)
Director: Derek Tsang
Writers: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Alexander Woo, Rose Cartwright, Madhuri Shekar
Cast: Jovan Adepo, John Bradley, Rosalind Chao, Liam Cunningham, Eiza González, Jess Hong, Marlo Kelly, Alex Sharp, Sea Shimooka, Zine Tseng, Saamer Usmani, Benedict Wong, Jonathan Pryce

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