3 Body Problem review: great story, strong cast, but it’s Netflix

From the creators of Game of Thrones comes another touchy-feely story. However, Netflix’s 3 Body Problem opens up Liu Cixin’s wild ideas to wider audiences, and that’s commendable.

Books-to-screen adaptations can work until they don’t. For example, J.R.T. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is 310 pages long – a single evening of bouncy reading, and you’re done.

Peter Jackson, though, decided to make the book into a three-film epic that takes 474 minutes to watch. That’s eight hours you’re not getting back, and you’ll moan and curse twice as long.

Great Expectations is also a delightful, if a little sad, novel by Charles Dickens, but FX adapted it into a torturous TV miniseries in 2023. Really, sometimes it’s best to just leave the books alone.

But sometimes it’s not – especially when you’ve already proven that you’re good at refashioning even the most complicated storylines into something not only passable but totally worth your time in front of the telly.

Softer and globalized

And, indeed, David Benioff and his collaborator D. B. Weiss have brought us Game of Thrones, the (in)famous adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, a series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin.

The HBO series was good until it wasn’t – see the series finale. But it was a huge hit among viewers, and it showed other writers and producers that it really is possible to turn a hugely complex saga into film.

Unsurprisingly then, it was Benioff and Weiss that Netflix targeted to write an adaptation of another wildly popular book series, the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, by Chinese engineer and science fiction writer Liu Cixin.

It’s the first book of the award-winning series The Three-Body Problem, which gives the name to Netflix’s show, 3 Body Problem, released last week on the most popular streamer in the world.

Sick myself, with a screaming toddler next to me for days as a bonus, I somehow managed to watch all eight episodes in a delirious binge over a couple of days.

The show doesn’t awe or bedazzle, but it definitely doesn’t disappoint either.

Now, it’s said that you should never need to read the books to watch the TV series – the latter should be enjoyable by themselves.

Well, I’ve read the books – ages ago. Couldn’t help myself – the buzz in the press was irresistible. That, of course, means that I couldn’t avoid comparing what I read to what I was watching.

In short, the show doesn’t awe or bedazzle, but it definitely doesn’t disappoint either. It might be less unique and cold-hearted than the book trilogy but I can understand – on a global Netflix, people probably need less specifically Chinese characters and overtones. Much of the action takes place in London.

Besides, Liu himself is a bit controversial. He lives in China and supports the ruling Communist Party. In fact, five Republican US senators asked Netflix in 2020 to reconsider its plans to adapt Liu’s trilogy.

Unique plot sells well

Ironically, Netflix is not legally available in China. Beijing is getting more nationalist these days, so my guess is that the Chinese people, getting their censored truths from the regime, would not like how the show opens.

That’s because before delving into present-day events (although, and not to spoil anything, the structure of time is too complex to really say), 3 Body Problem devotes quite a bit of time to the Cultural Revolution. Kudos to Liu – he blessed the decision.

Liu Cixin. Image by Shutterstock.

It was a brutal era when the Maoists, just like the Stalinists a few decades earlier, purged society of capitalists and intellectuals (and, most definitely, perceived enemies within the ruling clique) in their millions. The policy ended when Mao Zedong died.

The vicious opening scene of the book, by the way, was not included in the Chinese language adaptation, released last year and now available on Peacock.

However, if Liu’s story is indeed very heavy on science and speculative physics and lacks humanism as such, Benioff, Weiss, and their co-showrunner Alexander Woo do pretty well to inject color into the show’s main characters.

For a TV show, that’s probably unavoidable, but for a Liu purist, it is, I imagine, hardly excusable. Nevertheless, I personally found the solutions interesting – for instance, Wang Miao, the nanomaterials specialist featured in the book, is split into the so-called Oxford Five.

There’s romance and love – not Liu’s strong point. John Bradley – of Game of Thrones fame – who is a funny snack magnate Jack, shines and solely carries the weight of providing comic relief throughout the episodes (he supports Manchester City, though – zero sympathy from me).

Liam Cunningham, again, better known as Davos Seaworth in Thrones, stands out as Thomas Wade, a moody spymaster. Although I’ll admit, most of the cast is great – clearly, the creators of the show invested a lot of effort into rounding the characters.

The plot, of course, is the main selling point of 3 Body Problem. Yes, there are aliens, but they’re not buggy-eyed green or gray men or monsters – instead, we know about them through signals, intergalactic messages, and, obviously, an AI hologram.

The fact that the alien threat depicted in the books and on Netflix’s show is not imminent – the enemy fleet should reach Earth in 400 years – makes for a nice parallel to the gradual threat of ever-more penetrating global warming.

It’s a story for brainiacs, sure. But the setting also matters. Again, I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say that the special effects are superb. They make you shiver at times, and it seems that the $20 million that Netflix spent on each episode was well spent.

The bet is risky. In recent years, Netflix has become really good at canceling shows without actually giving their creators a chance to wrap them up – what if the number-crunchers decide 3 Body Problem is not popular enough to keep going? There’s no announcement about Season 2 yet.

The tech: we can dream

And then there’s the gadget-y angle. I know, I know, it’s fiction – but if the magical VR device we keep seeing was real, we could quickly forget Apple Vision Pro.

It’s a sleek metallic headset, it’s very light, completely wireless, and there’s no fussing around with settings and apps. Loading time is minimal, and the battery life is seemingly infinite. It’s incredible.

Obviously, it’s not real, but if the development community somehow catches up to the fictional headset, it will surely be the best way to experience VR – and you won’t have to stroll through public spaces like the tech bros, showing off what they can afford.

Tech is, of course, everywhere in the series. The Sophons, for example, can see whatever they want, “every meeting, every conversation, the memory of every computer” – it’s like Pegasus spyware of the extraterrestrial type.

One of the characters, Saul, is almost killed by a car, which instead mortally wounds his one-night stand partner, and he is soon told that someone hacked autonomous cars and directed them to hit him. Obviously, self-driving vehicles can be hacked and forced to “hallucinate” in reality as well.

A self-driving car. Image by Shutterstock.

Having just read Garrett M. Graff’s book UFO. The Inside Story of the US Government’s Search for Alien Life Here – and Out There, I enjoyed the fact that both Liu’s book and the TV show realistically portray the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

The menacing San-Ti are in no rush. Despite what the sci-fi thrillers tell us, the universe is just mind-bogglingly big, and commuting takes ages – literally. If there’s a threat, it’s imminent in a different way. The hunt for aliens is inevitably painstakingly slow, too.

What about reality? Humanity has tried and tried, but so far, no contact with species from outer space has been made.

We should still hope, though. Jill Tarter, an American astronomer, once said that all of our efforts to find extraterrestrial intelligence so far are equivalent to scooping a single glass of water from the oceans.

“And no one would decide that the ocean was without fish on the basis of one glass of water. We need bigger glasses and more hands in the water,” Tarter said in 2009. But, hey, if we believed Liu’s story to be true, we better be careful, or we might invite the occupiers over.

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