3 Body Problem review: Netflix’s adaptation is a mismatch of compelling sci-fi ideas and boring characters

The challenge of scale is a perennial issue for fantasy and science-fiction narratives. Audiences crave grand spectacles on screen, but without a connection to the characters, all the fantastical elements can feel as fleeting as a dazzling fireworks display, lacking any lasting impact.

In hindsight, it’s easy to underestimate the significance of the opening title sequence of Game of Thrones. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss took George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic and transformed it into one of the most beloved and influential TV series of all time. Part of its success can be attributed to the meticulous casting and production design, but equally important was the unmistakable reminder at the start of each episode of where every character was situated and their approximate distances from one another. This allowed viewers to navigate the complex narrative layers effortlessly and to understand the political intrigues in the southern capital of Westeros juxtaposed against the encroaching threat of ice demons from the north.

Now, Benioff and Weiss have returned with their first TV project since the conclusion of Game of Thrones in 2019. Teaming up with Alexander Woo, they’ve adapted the highly acclaimed sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem by Chinese author Cixin Liu for Netflix. While it’s unfair to draw direct parallels between this new venture and their previous work, given the myriad differences, the comparisons are inevitable. Notably, the inclusion of Game of Thrones veterans such as John Bradley, Liam Cunningham, and Jonathan Pryce in key roles hints at a similar scope. Weiss himself acknowledged in a 2022 interview with EW that The Three-Body Problem “pushes a lot of the same buttons.”

However, despite these similarities, The Three-Body Problem struggles to strike the same balance between epic, larger-than-life concepts and intimate, human-sized characters that made Game of Thrones so compelling.

Jess Hong as Jin Cheng, John Bradley as Jack Rooney in episode 103 of 3 Body Problem.

Liu’s original novel, the first installment of a trilogy, unfolds primarily within China, commencing amidst the tumultuous backdrop of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s. Here, we witness the harrowing ordeal of Ye Wenjie, a young aspiring scientist who tragically witnesses her father’s public execution by an enraged mob during a “struggle session.” Subsequently, Ye herself is dispatched to a labor camp in Mongolia, where her scientific acumen unexpectedly garners the attention of authorities, leading to unforeseen consequences.

The Netflix adaptation faithfully recreates these pivotal moments, including a nearly identical rendition of the opening scene. However, from this point forward, the narrative diverges. While Liu’s novel transitions from Ye’s experiences in the 1960s to the contemporary era, focusing on scientist Wang Miao and detective Da Shi’s investigation into the suspicious deaths of several prominent scientists, including Ye’s own daughter.

In the series, Benedict Wong embodies a charismatic, cigarette-loving intelligence operative akin to Da Shi, albeit with some alterations. Rather than centering solely on Wang, the show introduces an international ensemble of scientist friends, including Jin Cheng (portrayed by Jess Hong), Saul Durand (played by Jovan Adepo), Augustina “Auggie” Salazar (brought to life by Eiza Gonzalez), Jack Rooney (played by John Bradley), and Will Downing (embodied by Alex Sharp). This creative decision appears to be a strategic move to adapt the complex sci-fi premise for television audiences. While deviations from the source material are inevitable in adaptations, as noted by Dune: Part Two director Denis Villeneuve, not all such departures are necessarily detrimental.

Several characters are given more depth and charm, with Jess Hong’s portrayal of Jin Cheng standing out despite her relatively limited prior credits. Additionally, the return of Jovan Adepo, following his memorable performance in Babylon, adds to the ensemble’s appeal.

Yang Hewen as Bai Mulin, Zine Tseng as Young Ye Wenjie in episode 101 of 3 Body Problem

The issue lies in the lack of integration of these new characters into Liu’s narrative, resulting in a disjointed experience. Instead of enriching the global plot with relatable human connections, the interpersonal dynamics among these friends often feel inconsequential against the backdrop of the show’s grand themes. The freedom afforded by the absence of these characters in the original story allows Benioff, Weiss, and Woo to take bold narrative liberties, resulting in genuinely surprising television moments. However, at times, the fate of these characters feels disconnected from the central events, exacerbated by the opening credits’ inability to provide adequate context.

What distinguished The Three-Body Problem in literature was its emphasis on problem-solving and intricate negotiations over traditional sci-fi tropes like space battles or rogue AI. While some of these innovative concepts translate well to the screen, particularly during moments involving a certain video game, many of the adaptation choices in The Three-Body Problem feel like misguided attempts to inject excitement into the narrative.

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