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Netflix's 3 Body Problem is a slick but volatile sci-fi series whose mind-bending story isn't its greatest strength

 Jin Cheng holds up an apple in a fantasy VR setting in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV show.
Jin Cheng holds up an apple in a fantasy VR setting in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV show.

Netflix is used to taking gambles. From pioneering the crackdown on account sharing between households to remaking some of the best anime shows, the streaming giant has a penchant for persuing high-risk, high-reward strategies.

You can now count 3 Body Problem, Netflix’s TV adaptation of Liu Cixin’s brain-melting book series, among its big swings. Indeed, the streamer’s latest big-budget series isn’t just packed with abstract sci-fi fare; it’s also helmed by Game of Thrones’ (GoT) showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, whose reputation took a significant hit after the high-fantasy HBO show’s divisive final season.

Alongside Netflix and True Blood showrunner Alexander Woo, though, Benioff and Weiss have returned to form with an effective, mind-bending series that delivers a fitting take on Cixin’s dense and seemingly unfilmable source material. Its occasionally reductive plot threads and storytelling deviations will irritate fans of Cixin’s novels, while its more cerebral elements and plot pacing might baffle others. As a deep-thinking, multi-genre, and surprisingly intimate series, however, 3 Body Problem largely hits the sweet spot.

Secret Invasion

A Chinese soldier and Ye Wenjie stand in a field in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV series
A Chinese soldier and Ye Wenjie stand in a field in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV series

3 Body Problem’s plot jumps between two storylines set in different time periods. The first, which takes place in the 60s and 70s, follows Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng), a Chinese astrophysics prodigy who becomes increasingly misanthropic as a result of numerous personally traumatic events. Disillusioned by the cruelty of the human race, Ye makes a fateful decision – one that echoes across time and space – when a seemingly benevolent alien race reaches out to her during her research into extraterrestrial life.

Half a century later, unorthodox detective Da Shi (Marvel star Benedict Wong) investigates a series of gruesome, unexplained deaths involving scientists across the globe. Under the command of a mysterious organization led by the enigmatic Thomas Wade (Liam Cunningham), Shi soon finds himself trailing the Oxford Five – a group of scientific experts who might hold the key to staving off an invasion that humanity is ill-equipped to deal with.

3 Body Problem shines brightest when it leans into the human aspect of its story

3 Body Problem spends its early episodes flitting between these timelines, which isn't a novel storytelling approach for a sci-fi show, but it nonetheless succeeds in slowly untangling the biggest mysteries within its core narrative. It’s not a superficial show by any means, either, with its layered story posing philosophical questions – mainly of the existential variety – and other brain teasers throughout its eight-episode run. Plotwise, 3 Body Problem also poses more questions than it answers, meaning viewers looking for an easy watch are in for a rude awakening.

Auggie Salazar starts her nanofiber research again in a Oxford-based lab in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV series
Auggie Salazar starts her nanofiber research again in a Oxford-based lab in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV series

If you really focus on the narrative playing out, however, 3 Body Problem rewards you. Indeed, those who concentrate can spot clues that foreshadow events to come. It’s an interactive form of storytelling that showcases one of 3 Body Problem’s biggest strengths, i.e. its ability to subconsciously turn you into a prescient detective, rather than simply being an objective observer. I found myself trying to solve its largest puzzles before the answers were revealed by way of plot exposition, and I’d recommend you do the same if you want to add an extra dimension to your viewing experience.

Speaking of story exposition, there’s a frustration in how some of this is delivered. At times, 3 Body Problem does right by its narrative explanations – Da Shi’s evidence board, which contains important details about the Oxford Five in episode 1, for example, is a smart way of relaying important background information about each individual. Other times, characters vexingly repeat facts from one episode to the next. The revelation that the invading alien race is 400 years away from reaching Earth, for instance, is ‘revealed’ multiple times throughout episodes 3 and 4. My memory isn’t what it was, Netflix, but come on.

3 Body Problem is a cleverly constructed and sweeping epic

Its genre-bending makeup is also periodically erratic. A trailer that landed in January teased the potential for 3 Body Problem to be a sci-fi epic, VR horror, and mystery thriller rolled into one, but the tonal shifts throughout its early episodes are disappointingly temperamental. The lurching from sci-fi spectacle to tragicomedy, particularly during scenes that are seemingly set in a virtual reality (VR) world, typifies the show’s struggle to achieve equilibrium, something it doesn’t manage until its midway point.

Jack Rooney wears one of the mysterious VR headsets in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV show
Jack Rooney wears one of the mysterious VR headsets in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV show

I previously suggested that 3 Body Problem had the capacity to give you VR nightmares when its first clip surfaced online in November 2023, but some of its more terror-positioned visuals just aren’t frightening. Some are spooky and unsettling – the seemingly perpetual and unexplained countdown timer that plagues Auggie Salazar (Eiza Gonzalez), one of the Oxford Five, early on is unequivocally haunting. Other moments have a macabre flavor to them, including scenes where Jin Cheng (Jess Hong) and Jack Rooney (Jon Bradley) – other members of the aforementioned quintet – interact with obscure, state-of-the-art, minimalist VR headsets. Alas, that’s as terrifying as things get.

There are, though, moments that are genuinely shocking. One sequence in episode 5 is deeply disturbing in its simplicity; its body horror unnervingly juxtaposed with the eerily still atmosphere that accompanies it. Throw in more bloody, at-times physical and psychological violence, plus other adult-weighted material – and morbid, R-rated, and deadpan jokes – and the narratively dark aura that epitomizes Benioff and Weiss-led projects is as prominent here as it was in Thrones. They might have traded high fantasy for mind-bending sci-fi, but their fingerprints are evident across the final product.

A sky full of stars

The Oxford Five sit in a pub drinking in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV adaptation
The Oxford Five sit in a pub drinking in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV adaptation

For all of its big-brain concepts, multi-genre scope and exorbitant scale, though, I believe 3 Body Problem shines brightest when it actively leans into the deeply human aspect of its story.

As I alluded to earlier, there’s a barely perceptible shift around the halfway mark as the show gravitates away from its staggering science-based theories and philosophical conundrums in favor of an intimate tale about life, love, death and survival. That’s not to say that 3 Body Problem throws its metaphysical and sci-fi-led elements away – after all, there’s still a pulsating, dread-inducing War of the Worlds-inspired story to be told and, hopefully in future seasons, concluded.

There’s a frustration in how some of 3 Body Problem's story exposition is delivered

3 Body Problem’s ability to tell a meaningful, relatable, and tender story is what surprised me most about Netflix’s new lavish TV original, though. It displays a substantial emotional weightiness, particularly through Bradley’s Jack, Hong’s Jin, Alex Sharp’s Will (another of the Oxford Five), and Zine Tseng’s young Ye – based on her quietly intense performance, Tseng is a star in the making – that makes for a gripping melodrama to lose yourself in.

Thomas Wade and Da Shi have a tense conversation in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV show
Thomas Wade and Da Shi have a tense conversation in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV show

It isn’t a completely somber and/or poignant affair, mind you, with plenty of adult-based levity, awkward humor, and even the odd slapstick moment that pleasingly lightens the mood amid the trauma-laced subplots. 3 Body Problem doesn’t shy away from giving each cast member their time in the sun, either, with the aforementioned actors – plus other important characters, including Jovan Adepo’s Saul, the only Oxford Five member I haven’t mentioned – installed as episodic leads. By the way, this is a Benioff and Weiss-created TV adaptation so, just like GoT, I’d advise not becoming too attached to any one character (if you know, you know).

Considering that I struggled to connect with its multidimensional cast of characters in its first half, it was remarkably gratifying to be able to identify and empathize with (albeit belatedly) them later on. The relationships between certain individuals – Wade’s interactions with Da Shi and Jin are notable highlights – crackle and fizz with pleasing intent, while the surprising team-ups between radically different characters add a dynamic flavor to specific scenes, too. Who would have thought that a trippy, paranormal, and theory-led show would do its best work in its character-driven component?

My verdict

3 Body Problem is a cleverly constructed and sweeping epic that, once it navigates its clunky embryonic stage, finds an impressive balance between its high-brow plot, intimate and character-driven storylines, and grounding in real science and history-defining events. An equal-parts international and intergalactic mystery, it’s an ambitious, mind-melting Netflix sci-fi show that demands your attention.

At times, it has the makings of an HBO-style prestige drama, with Benioff and Weiss’ work on Thrones paying dividends on their latest big-budget small-screen project. Largely, it’s a fitting adaptation of Cixin’s often unwieldy literary works, although it slightly trivializes its hypothetical source material through intermittent creative deviations and simplified conceptual explanations.

3 Body Problem was one of 10 exciting shows I couldn't wait for in early 2024 and, after enjoying what it had to offer, I feel vindicated in my prediction. It won’t have the same, industry-altering impact that Game of Thrones had in 2011, but it’s more than earned a spot – a potentially permanent one – in my best Netflix shows guide. Once you’ve gorged yourself on all eight episodes on launch day, I’m confident you’ll understand why.

3 Body Problem exclusively launches in full on Netflix on Thursday, March 21.