A failed landing: “3 Body Problem” series review

Does Netflix’s newest series live up to the genius of the source material?
A failed landing: “3 Body Problem” series review

After 18 years of high praise from some of the world’s brightest minds (see: Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama), Cixin Liu’s hard science fiction novel “The Three Body Problem” has finally come to the Western screen, or rather, the streaming services. Adapted by “Game of Thrones” producers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss (also known as D&D), “3 Body Problem” presents itself as a game-changer in science fiction when it couldn’t be more opposite. D&D took a technical yet psychological account of the breaking down of science and rendered it bland and unrecognizable. The modern revival of hard sci-fi deserved to be better than a glorified alien invasion show.

Similar to the book, “3 Body Problem” opens with a brutal flashback to the Cultural Revolution in Beijing. The opening scene depicts in painful detail the struggle session of Ye Zhetai, a theoretical physics professor. His former students, now indoctrinated into the Red Guard, accuse him of teaching reactionary concepts and beat him, in his calm defiance, to death. In the crowd, his daughter, Ye Wenjie, loses whatever hope she had in humanity. After being jailed then relocated to a military research base, Ye, an astrophysicist herself, places her faith in the stars and eventually receives a message. Fast forward to modern times, and things pick up the pace for the worse. Premier scientists are committing suicide in droves, and particle accelerators around the world are spitting out impossible results. Detectives and researchers put their heads together to unravel an ominous plot, and all the while, they have eyes and ears everywhere. The San-Ti, as we come to know them, are light-years ahead of humanity in technological advancement but at the cost of spiritual desolation. 

Instead of basing the story in China with all Chinese main characters, Netflix opted for a multi-ethnic cast hailing from the United Kingdom. They divide Liu’s main character, Wang Miao, into the “Oxford Five,” who are, frankly, a lackluster bunch: nanotechnology researcher Auggie Salazar, theoretical physics researcher Jin Cheng, physics prodigy Saul Durand, researcher-turned-teacher Will Downing, and researcher-turned-snack-magnate Jack Rooney. Besides exchanging some of the driest dialogue I’ve ever heard, none of these characters came across as legitimate scientists, which was a true disappointment. What made the first book so thrilling was Wang’s constant methodical agonizing over the scientific phenomena he was witnessing. The events of the show move so fast, leaving no time for these small but important moments of contemplation. True to the books, the only memorable characters are the brusque yet shrewd detective Da Shi (Benedict Wong) and his lawful-neutral intelligence overlord Thomas Wade (Liam Cunningham).

One aspect D&D did justice with Netflix’s largest first season budget ever ($20 million) was the stunning scenes in virtual reality. To recruit scientists and global elites to their cause, the San-Ti create a cryptic VR game to replicate the nature of life in a three-body star system. Players are tasked with deducing the elusive pattern of the rising and setting of the sun, which will allow civilization to develop uninterrupted and avoid extinction. As part of the game, the San-Ti pit our greatest thinkers, from Aristotle to Newton, against the three body problem and let them fail, dooming entire civilizations to fall with the sun. Epic depictions of the human computer, mass rehydration, and later on, the sophon’s abilities, were rare visual highlights of the show. All this being said, I still felt that the showrunners sacrificed the book’s reflectiveness and almost-cosmic horror for “cheap” yet expensive thrills. I would have appreciated more of that $20 million dollar budget going towards the character work and writing.

Chinese superfans of Liu’s books who pirated “3 Body Problem” had mixed reactions. Some praised its faithfulness to the books while others expressed anger at Netflix’s race- and gender-swapping, which supposedly served to “demonize some Chinese characters.” The People’s Liberation Army went so far as to state that this product of American “cultural hegemony” aimed to “eliminate the reputation of modern China.” The fact is, Liu gave the producers his blessing to globalize the story and its characters, who all have different perspectives and roles to play. Netflix does remain faithful in the sense that through his fiction, Liu endorses that only world leaders and extraordinary scientists make any real dents in the course of human history. In other words, although Auggie and Saul don’t come off as real physicists on screen, they, and not some mythic underdog, stand at the technological battlefront.

Lin Qi, a Chinese billionaire who helped produce the show, was incredibly eager for this adaptation to skyrocket in the global media. He envisioned “3 Body Problem” to be a franchise like Star Wars in size and sensation; unfortunately, he did not live to see the series launch. To me, this comparison is ill-suited since nothing about this adaptation is particularly groundbreaking in sci-fi television. You can experience the same rush and existential horror while diving into deeper intrigue in a show like “The Expanse.” What D&D fails to capitalize on (and what makes Liu’s books so fascinating) is the complexity of Liu’s scientific narrative. Hard science fiction emphasizes scientific accuracy or technicality grounded in our current understanding of the physical world. Although Liu, a computer engineer, has stated that his books’ scientific premises are not entirely based in reality, they are nonetheless ingenious to both science-minded and general audiences. Netflix’s “3 Body Problem” amounts to a wasted opportunity to write present-day sci-fi that doesn’t downplay the science in favor of overdone pathos and forced realism. As Stephen King wrote, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” If you’re going to spoon feed your audience, give us something outrageous to tear into … or nothing at all. 

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Image courtesy of IGN

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About the Contributor
Gabbi Basa
Gabbi Basa, Senior Staff Writer
Gabbi is a 1st year neurobiology student, hungry reader, and metalhead. Talk to her about anything Stephen King or peruse her blog, The Geeky Gauntlet.
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    MalinkyZubrApr 7, 2024 at 4:49 pm

    Wow! this is an excellent analysis, I agree entirely

    Reply