3 Body Problem review: Game of Thrones creators return with dull, perplexing sci-fi for Netflix

How do you even sell a series like 3 Body Problem? The time-spanning, reality-shifting Netflix series has been ballyhooed principally because of its creative team: Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss, alongside The Terror’s Alexander Woo. This season is an adaptation of the first book in an acclaimed literary trilogy by the novelist Liu Cixin – though, being dense with theoretical science and translated from Chinese, not one that lots of viewers are likely to have read. Transposing the so-called unadaptable work to the screen is an ambitious and logistically impressive undertaking. But you can’t binge-watch pure ambition.

It’s difficult to even surmise the plot of 3 Body Problem within the ambit of a 400-word review. It has to do with a spate of grisly deaths that befall some of the world’s leading scientists. Ominous countdown clocks appear as an apparition in people’s field of vision. An impossibly high-tech video game that seems to have sinister applications. A cycle of vengeance originating from a Maoist struggle session in 1960s China. Oh, and an alien invasion.

The cast is fine but lacking in star power, with the story and production values taking the limelight. Benedict Wong is a standout, playing a human chimney of an intelligence officer attempting to investigate the string of deaths, while The OC’s Rosalind Chao brings steely gravitas as damaged and destructive Chinese astrophysicist Ye Wenjie. The other scientists – played by actors including Jess Hong, Eiza González, and Jovan Adepo – have been Frankensteined from the source material into five Oxford-based researchers and academics, and are markedly less compelling.

It’s easy to see why Benioff and Weiss might have been attracted to this subject matter. In the abstract, 3 Body Problem has a number of Thronesian qualities: extreme violence, a penchant for dramatically offing characters, political intrigue, self-importance. In practice, though, there’s little shared DNA – not even enough to be second cousins.

The great strength of Thrones was always its world-building, its ability to conjure a sense of place that feels both vast and specific. 3 Body Problem has vastness to burn, but – in shifting much of the culturally specific story from China to England – never feels precise or lived-in. It frays, too, at the edges: unconvincing line readings or jarringly comic dialogue bring a scene’s momentum to a standstill.

When a book is deemed “unadaptable”, it is almost interpreted as a challenge. Of course, no book is really unadaptable; the problem is that rendering it on screen will simply be too dull, or confusing. 3 Body Problem is somehow both. Benioff, Weiss and Woo made radical and transformative changes to the source material, but lost something integral in the process. We’re left with a series that’s full of bluster but no vibrancy – a body devoid of life.