Everyone’s Hooked on Netflix’s 3 Body Problem

Based on Cixin Liu’s megapopular sci-fi novels, 3 Body Problem is an engrossing spectacle about alien invasion. It’s a welcome 21st-century twist on the old War of the Worlds premise.

Still from 3 Body Problem. (Netflix)

The new Netflix series 3 Body Problem based on Chinese sci-fi novelist Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy is among the most-watched shows internationally. Predictably, it’s reviled by many fans of Liu’s books. It certainly doesn’t help that there’s a longer Chinese adaptation that came out last year available on Peacock. Chinese viewers complain about the shallow Hollywood treatment, the shift in setting from China to the UK, and the anti-Chinese bias they see in this new version, which has “globalized” both the characters and the narrative. Fans of the books lament the loss of the in-depth treatment of physics and the many changes made to the original.

I’ve never read the books and went into the new eight-episode first season cold, not knowing any of the context. I found it slick and populated by too many pretty TV-actor types, but nevertheless engrossing and highly bingeable. Ignorance may be bliss when watching 3 Body Problem. It should be noted that the series has a great asset with the hulking, phlegmatic, pockmarked, nonpretty actor Benedict Wong as a central investigative figure. I love that guy.

Adapted from Liu’s novels by Game of Thrones creative team David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, along with Alexander Woo (The Terror: Infamy), the series concerns a complex doomsday scenario. Particle acceleration experiments generated at top scientific research centers around the world are suddenly producing nonsensical results that seem to invalidate ten years’ worth of data. Centers are shutting down, and many scientists are committing suicide or dying in mysterious circumstances. And Wong’s character, intelligence detective Clarence “Da” Shi, is assigned to figure out what’s going on by Thomas Wade (Liam Cunningham), a ruthless spymaster working for an unnamed government agency.

Flashbacks relate these contemporary mysteries to incidents in the Cultural Revolution in 1966 China, when young Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng) witnesses the brutal death of her physicist father after he’s denounced by her mother during a struggle session. He won’t recant his counterrevolutionary stance on the big bang theory — which the revolutionaries claim gives support to the existence of God — and is beaten to death by fanatical young Maoists.

Trained by her father, Wenjie is identified as a likely candidate for clandestine scientific experiments being conducted by the government in a hilltop fortress overlooking the prison where she’s held. It becomes Wenjie’s job to monitor the attempts to contact alien life via a giant signal-sending apparatus aimed at the heavens, technology that reflects rival efforts in other industrialized nations. But Wenjie is brilliant enough to come up with a way of augmenting the signal’s strength, and she gets a reply. She’s alone in the lab and seems to have reached a similarly isolated alien — a self-described pacifist. The alien sends her an ominous message warning her not to reply or otherwise communicate again, for the sake of human survival.

Still from 3 Body Problem. (Netflix)

By now fully convinced that humanity is incapable of saving itself from its cruelest excesses, Wenjie makes the fateful decision to respond anyway. The result of her decision is a series of alien-driven attacks on scientists carried out both by fanatical agents on Earth who have embraced the aliens as our new gods as well as an extraterrestrial probe called a Sophon, a quantum computer folded down to the size of a single proton able to sabotage our planet’s science. Computer game headsets that are far too technologically advanced to be Earth-made are being sent to top scientists, plunging them into confounding hyperreal games set in ancient kingdoms, each with three suns (referring to the three-body problem of the title). Gameplay centers on a limited number of chances to save the kingdoms before they collapse into destructive chaos.

Warnings from a far superior power are also sent, including an image of a time-coded countdown to some unknown but terrifying deadline that seems to burn in the retina of one scientist. An unlikely “angel of the Lord” figure, a vaguely hippieish looking young woman, appears to various scientists speaking in evangelical terms of the coming apocalypse and the possibility of being saved, but she’s never captured on any image-making device aimed at her. The general public is alerted to some monstrous challenge to earthly power and understanding when the entire firmament of stars in the night sky blinks on and off several times, “winking” at humanity.

It’s a terrific premise, in short, and there are so many eye-popping VFX spectacles to go with it, that it makes the War of the Worlds scenario seem fresh again.

The weakest link in the narrative chain is probably the group of characters known as the “Oxford 5” from their days as university prodigies and friends who were expected to set the world of science on fire. Of them, two are still up-and-comers: dedicated physicist Jin Cheng (Jess Hong) and high-minded Auggie Salazar (Eiza González), whose cutting-edge experiments in nanofibers have placed her at the top of her field.

Still considered promising as a research assistant, Auggie’s friend Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo) has become an increasingly cynical pothead. Kindly Will Downing (Alex Sharp) has accepted what he considers his intellectual limitations and receded into teaching, but his overall lack of confidence has also prevented him from connecting with Jin, his secret long-term love. And finally, high-living Jack Rooney (John Bradley) has bailed out on science altogether in order to become a snack-food entrepreneur, which has made him rich.

So much of the series’ personal drama, romance, and comic relief are generated through them, who together are something of an amalgamation of characters from the source books. It’s a sensible adaptation move, it seems, but sometimes the formulaic quality of the way they’re deployed gets irritating. All those YA plot devices concerning who’s hooking up and who’s on the outs with whom have to be endured.

Still from 3 Body Problem. (Netflix)

Still, there are some good uses of the characters, especially in terms of arguing various premises regarding the possible fate of humanity if, in fact, the aliens really do land on Earth in four-hundred years, based on the calculations of how far they have to travel. (Though really, the aliens are shown to have so much power over hapless earthlings already, do they really need to physically land here in a spaceship?)

“Why don’t we all just relax and do a jay because we’re all gonna be dead by then?” asks Saul, rejecting arguments that we must martial all our forces to defend the territory for our descendants.

This makes for some entertaining scenes when, for mysterious reasons, he’s appointed by the United Nations to be one of three “Wallfacers,” charged with thinking of a way to fight the aliens that can’t be detected by their omnipresent surveillance. The theory is the aliens can’t read thoughts, so Wallfacers are to think of a plan and then get blind obedience once they move into action. Saul quite sensibly refuses to be a Wallfacer, only to find that he’s landed with handlers who follow him everywhere, agreeing with whatever he says but refusing to leave his side so as to be ready when he starts issuing humanity-saving orders.

Late in the series, one of the Oxford 5 volunteers to have his brain rocketed to the alien fleet. The hope is that the aliens will be unable to resist using advanced tech to resurrect him in order to learn more about humans — the idea being once that happens, he can somehow send intel on the fleet back to Earth. But even willing to make that sacrifice, the volunteer refuses to sign a loyalty oath to humanity against the aliens, because “What if they’re better than we are?”

This is certainly a burning question — really, how could they be worse? But from what the characters are gleaning about alien traits and tendencies, the Earth could very well be swapping one ruthless kill-crazy gang of apex predators for another. Regardless, it seems pretty clear, based on the reception of the series so far, that huge numbers of us are already hooked and will be tuning in to the inevitable second season to find out.