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James T. KeaneApril 19, 2024
Zine Tseng in “3 Body Problem” (IMDB)

I am one of the nerds who read the books behind the new Netflix series, “3 Body Problem,” before I saw the show itself. I loved Cixin Liu’s “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy, which was published in English in 2014 (The Three-Body Problem), 2015 (The Dark Forest) and 2016 (Death’s End), when the books first came out, and I read them again in advance of the first season of the highly anticipated series from the creators of “Game of Thrones.” My experience of the books certainly leavened my take on the eight-episode series, and so the reader might be forgiven for expecting the worst. As in: “Worst. Adaptation. Ever!”

“3 Body Problem” has received some negative reviews from folks expecting more aliens and more gore, but that’s always the case with dialogue-heavy dramas. David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” once aptly described this as the “less yakking, more whacking” desire of bloodthirsty viewers. In fact, “3 Body Problem” begins with a scene so violent that even Tony Soprano might be taken aback. But that’s not what this wildly imaginative series (or the preceding trilogy of books) is about.

Some folks in the Chinese government are also not happy. “China Military Online,” a website run by the Chinese military, criticized the decision to change the ethnicity of some of the cast: Cixin Liu’s mostly Chinese characters are now a United Nations of ethnicities, and much of the action is set in the United Kingdom. They further complained that China is shown only as backward and repressive. (Like the books, the Netflix series is vivid in its depictions of the excesses of China’s Cultural Revolution). Though Netflix is blocked in China, many tech-savvy Chinese viewers have also commented negatively on the Netflix show in comparison to an earlier adaptation for Chinese television.

My verdict? “3 Body Problem” is good.

The premise (spoiler alert!): It’s “War of the Worlds,” except the alien invaders won’t arrive for four centuries. In the meantime, humanity is being prepared by the aliens from Trisolaris for the eventual meeting. Known as the “San-Ti,” they are an advanced but luckless civilization trapped in a solar system with three suns whose behavior is mathematically impossible to predict—hence the “three body problem,” history’s least hoped-for menage a trois. Their goal? To turn Earth into a more stable home for themselves. What that means for humanity is sort of what it means for an anthill when a little kid kicks it over: Who cares about the ants?

At the same time, a few enterprising humans start trying to figure out a way to defeat—or at least discourage—the alien fleet as it travels across the galaxy. Some of these characters fall in and out of love and suffer many angsty interpersonal moments that weren’t quite there in Cixin Liu’s books; it’s a plot element not all viewers like but nevertheless gives the characters a depth that some lacked on the page. There’s an Aaron Sorkin vibe to the chat-heavy series at points. Nor are there any action heroes among the protagonists of “3 Body Problem.” Instead of The Rock jumping out of a helicopter to punch Vin Diesel in the face, we get a chain-smoking middle-aged detective and a loose friend group of brooding physicists and mathematicians. It’s hot.

This first season (fingers crossed for more; Netflix says yes, but “3 Body Problem” was reportedly hugely expensive to make) takes us more or less a third of the way through the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” storyline, so almost all of the action takes place on Earth. The three creators of the series, David Benioff, D. B. Weiss and Alexander Woo, use C.G.I. liberally to depict some of the more fantastical scenes that take place in virtual reality. The science and math are simplified enough for the casual viewer to understand, but you’ll have to pay attention. “Quantum entanglement” and similar concepts are central to the plot.

Little details confirm that Benioff et al. did their homework with both special effects and script. For example, when St. Thomas More appears in a scene set in virtual reality, he is wearing the clothes of an English noble, but around his neck hangs the heavy chain of S-shaped links that he also wears in Hans Holbein’s famous painting of the Lord Chancellor of England and future martyr. The show offers a wry but accurate take on scientists as well. A character who wants to be part of an ambitious plan to build spaceships on the Moon to fight the aliens can’t figure out how to open a window. It adds to the verisimilitude, a necessary element in any artistic endeavor that requires a significant suspension of disbelief.

What’s missing? One notable absence is religion, which plays little role in “3 Body Problem” other than among the deluded humans who decide to worship their alien conquerors. Not even characters who are dying of cancer or who witness history-changing events reflect on them with anything resembling a religious imagination. The best “3 Body Problem” can offer in that regard is a Chinese character paying respect to her ancestors. The series is true to the books in this respect, but the absence is more notable in a medium that cannot make use of internal monologues as an expository device.

Another warning: While “3 Body Problem” is overall not particularly violent (fans of “Game of Thrones” might be disappointed that there’s nothing like a “Red Wedding” to be found), there are some moments that can shock and potentially stay with the viewer. In addition to the graphic opening scene of the first episode, another includes a scene not for the faint of heart where invisible nano-fibers slice a ship and its human inhabitants to bits. The cameras don’t always look away.

I am looking forward to another season, even if it does not closely follow the plot of The Dark Forest, the second novel in Liu’s trilogy. The scope of this series can only grow as the inventive storyline proceeds, and even sci-fi fans looking for a bit more “Star Wars” and a bit less Sorkin should find much to enjoy.

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