Netflix's Massive New Page-to-Screen Series '3 Body Problem' Is Your Next Must-See Sci-Fi Mindbender

The showrunners that made 'Game of Thrones' such a hit have now taken on Liu Cixin's 'Remembrance of Earth's Past' trilogy.
Sarah Ward
March 21, 2024

How do you follow up Game of Thrones? So asks one of the biggest questions in pop culture over the past decade. HBO's hit adaptation of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series ended five years ago, but the network behind it, the TV industry in general, and everyone involved in it on- and off-screen has been grappling with that query since the series became a worldwide smash. For the cable station that made it, more Game of Thrones shows is the answer, aka House of the Dragon, the upcoming A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms: The Hedge Knight and other floated spinoffs. For Hollywood, leaning in on fantasy franchises has been a solution. And for David Benioff and DB Weiss, the showrunners on the Westeros-set phenomenon, bringing another complex book saga to the small screen is the chosen path.

Those novels: Liu Cixin's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, which reaches Netflix named after its debut entry, in another of its similarities with Benioff and Weiss' previous success. So arrives 3 Body Problem, streaming all eight of its first-season episodes from Thursday, March 21, with 2008 book The Three-Body Problem as its basis. Invasions, feuds, jumping timelines, a hefty cast of characters: they're all still in place. So are John Bradley (Marry Me), Liam Cunningham (Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter) and Jonathan Pryce (Slow Horses) among the cast, answering the "what comes next?" question for three Game of Thrones actors. Also, that composer Ramin Djawadi (Jack Ryan) is on music duties again isn't difficult to notice.

With 3 Body Problem, which sees Benioff and Weiss team up with True Blood and The Terror's Alexander Woo to bring Cixin's text to the screen, sprawling high fantasy gives away to time- and space-hopping hard sci-fi, however. The danger to global stability still springs from a battle for supremacy, but one where countdowns start dancing in front of some people's eyes, particle accelerators stop functioning properly, other folks can't be seen in security footage, scientists seem to be killing themselves and aliens linger. The series begins with a physics professor being beaten to death in front of a crowd containing his daughter during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Then, it flits to London today to watch the entire sky wink, gleaming helmets spirit whoever dons them into a complicated and intricate virtual-reality game, and what lurks beyond the earth — and who — play a significant part.

This isn't the only attempt to bring Cixin's novels to the screen, with 2023's 30-part Chinese series Three Body getting there first. 3 Body Problem also isn't concerned with creating as faithful a take on its source material as possible; rather, its main aim is to do for science-fiction mindbenders what Game of Thrones did for epic fantasy. Accordingly, this is a propulsive and addictive drama within its chosen genre — and one where pressing "next episode", since the whole first season drops at once, doesn't feel optional. Given how crucial that advanced maths and physics concepts are to its plot (its moniker is taken from orbital mechanics, after all), sparking a must-binge reaction is far from a simple mission. Structurally, cliffhangers are used liberally. Thematically, all of the scientific minutiae, and sci-fi as well, always comes back to people, families by blood and by choice, and humanity as a species.

3 Body Problem's grim 60s-set opening introduces Ye Wenjie (TV first-timer Zine Tseng), who is also punished by the anti-intellectual movement for being her father's offspring and protege. When she discovers Rachel Carson's Silent Spring at the logging camp where she's forced to toil, prison then awaits — then a secretive mountaintop base, where her work changes not just her life, but the planet's future. In 2024, then, as numbers haunt fields of vision and bright scientific minds commit suicide, old choices made by Ye (who is now played by Rosalind Chao, Sweet Tooth) start having an impact. If it all seems like a mystery, 3 Body Problem purposefully plays out like one, complete with detective Da Shi (Benedict Wong, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) investigating what's happening for shadowy government agency head Thomas Wade (Cunningham).

Enter a sextet with ties to Oxford: Vera Ye (Vedette Lim, FBI) and five of her former students. Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo, Babylon) is her research assistant, not that their studies can continue now that technology is failing them; Jin Cheng (Jess Hong, The Brokenwood Mysteries) also remains in science; Auggie Salazar (Eiza González, Mr & Mrs Smith) is trying to revolutionise nanofibres; Jack Rooney (Bradley) has sold out, making a fortune in junk food; and Will Downing (Alex Sharp, One Life) now teaches high schoolers. Trauma brings them back together. Hallucinations, VR, disappearing strangers and odd occurrences in the heavens keep them connected. Also linked to their plight is Mike Evans, who Ye in the earlier timeline (with Y: The Last Man's Ben Schnetzer in the part), but segues from being an eco-activist to living on a tanker (with Pryce taking over the role).

Then there's the headsets, which appear randomly and selectively like the present that no one knows that they want (because no one knows about them before they materialise). Popping one on means tussling with the eponymous quandary in a realm so lifelike that everyone who visits is convinced that they're really seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting everything around them. 3 Body Problem proves a spectacle when it slides into VR. Benioff, Weiss, Woo and their directors — Derek Tsang (Better Days), Andrew Stanton (who made WALL-E in his Pixar days), Minkie Spiro (Pieces of Her) and Jeremy Podeswa (Station Eleven, and another Game of Thrones alum) — understand the allure of escaping, of hoping that something better exists beyond our everyday reality and of dreaming big. With the threat of extra-terrestrials taking over looming large, however, their series also recognises the mundanity, brutality and beauty that surrounds humanity daily. One gruesome sequence, arriving just past the halfway mark of the season, won't be forgotten.

When a series has such a wealth of narrative to dig through, and so many ideas unearthed in the process, characters can feel like mere pawns. Thankfully, Benioff and Weiss have also been here before. As they did with Game of Thrones, the duo never let the fact that this is a tale about people first and foremost get out of sight. Among the cast, the always-welcome Wong, both Tseng and Chao as Ye, plus Adepo, Hong and Sharp all leave the biggest imprint — and give 3 Body Problem's story several weighty anchors. In no small part due to their efforts, the show's first season inspires another question as it wraps up: how do you now follow that?

Check out the trailer for 3 Body Problem:

3 Body Problem streams via Netflix from Thursday, March 21, 2024.

Images: courtesy of Netflix.

Published on March 21, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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