3 body problem
Artwork by Amelia Woon

‘Prepare yourself for something very strange’: a 3 Body Problem review

Content warning: references to suicide and violence.

From the creators of Game of Thrones, the 3 Body Problem is a new venture which promises all the best science fiction has to offer: imagination, mind-bending concepts and ambitious scope – in (literally) more than three dimensions. 

Based on the novel trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past by Liu Cixin, the story has already been adapted in the form of the Chinese TV series Three-Body (2023). Yet Netflix’s latest version, which reached the top of the platform’s English TV list following its release on March 21, diverges from the original in several ways. Most notably, the main action is transferred from China to the UK, a decision which has drawn some criticism due to a perceived Westernisation of Cixin’s story. In response, producers have insisted upon the diverse, international nature of the cast, said to reflect the show’s message about “a global struggle to survive.”

Defying explanation: the story

Broadly speaking, we follow ‘the Oxford Five’, a charismatic group of physicist friends who become caught up in a scientific crisis of grand proportions. Namely, science has ‘broken’, seemingly provoking a string of suicides among researchers. The reason for this trend only gradually emerges, as the viewer joins the dots between the present-day disruption and events unfolding in 1960s China, presented via flashbacks. 

The opening scene is one such flashback; amidst the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie sees her father beaten to death after refusing to deny scientific discoveries made in the West. This triggers a chain of traumatic events which fuel her growing disillusionment with humanity. After extraterrestrials contact Earth, she makes a related decision that will have far-reaching consequences not just for the scientific community but all of humankind. 

But this is just the beginning. In the trailer, the charismatic Jin says: “Prepare yourself for something very strange”. What follows is truly ever more bizarre; whether it’s the sky blinking or becoming a giant eye, a ship slivered to pieces by nanofibers, or – oh wait – a disembodied brain propelled through space. 3 Body Problem is certainly inventive and, at times, disturbingly graphic.

Defying explanation (more): what is the three body problem?

The titular three-body problem is difficult to grasp, at least for anyone without a physics background. In general terms, it refers to a scientific conundrum whereby three masses exist in the same solar system, interfering with each other’s orbits and ultimately resulting in chaos. There is no known solution to the problem, with long-term prediction of the behaviour of the three bodies considered impossible.

Dramatised, this problem becomes a catalyst for a threatened alien invasion of Earth. The extraterrestrial San-Ti inhabit a planet with three suns – the three-body problem in action. They are thus faced with chaotic eras on an all-out apocalyptic scale, leading to cycles of decimation and recommencement of civilisation which we see unfold in all their graphic detail. In search of a more stable home, they set their sights on Earth – an unfortunate turn of events for humankind.

Elsewhere, the series juggles with equally baffling scientific concepts, from atomic-weapon-powered space travel to multi-dimensional sophons (a super-computer the size of a proton, apparently). And it is in the virtual reality universe of an advanced video game that the show is at its most riveting, with the spectator feeling that anything is possible.The special effects breathe life into this alternate reality, somehow convincingly depicting bodies dehydrating, rehydrating and being sucked up into the sun in their millions. 

Asking the big questions

We know that the San-Ti are set to invade Earth – only not for another 400 years. The threat thus remains far from being realised in this initial series, which instead devotes time to exposition (there’s a lot to explain) and evoking suspense. This by no means makes it devoid of drama. Each episode is action-packed, while also engaging with profound philosophical questions, from existentialism to the ethics of science. One much commented-upon scene depicts a nanofiber-induced massacre – a haunting warning of science’s capacity to cause harm in the wrong hands. 

But 3 Body Problem also highlights that science is a great asset; it is not for nothing that the San-Ti target human science in order to weaken us. The characters – some cynical, others optimistic – must grapple with daunting, related considerations. Does the human race deserve to be saved, especially if another species can do a better job? How far should we go in our duty of care to future generations? And what does it mean to be (in)human? 

A mosaic of characters

3 Body Problem depicts a wide-ranging cast of characters, each with their own voices and personalities, hopes and troubles. While Ye is a morally grey figure with much potential, the distinctions between her 1960s and modern-day iterations can be jarring, especially as we don’t see how she evolves from A to B. Likewise, we never learn how her relationship with Mike Evans deteriorates so spectacularly that he goes from a compassionate, nature-loving activist to a man who only visits his child for the first time when she is dead. If Season Two is confirmed, scriptwriters will have their work cut out for them in terms of fleshing out the many characters’ backstories.

The generally rare priority afforded to friendship over romance was a stronger aspect, with the bond between the Oxford Five being convincing despite all their differences of opinion. The acting from Jin (Jess Hong), Will (Alex Sharp), and the drily humorous investigator Clarence/Da Shi (Benedict Wong) was a particular highlight, while special mention should be given to Sea Shimooka, whose voice perfectly imitates an emotionless AI. The final episode also paves the way for the promising Saul (Jovan Adepo) to occupy a major place as a ‘Wallfacer’ (whatever that may entail) in the next series. 

Final thoughts

The ambition of 3 Body Problem in all areas – plot, character, storytelling and visual effects – cannot be overstated, even if this first series is more of a taster than the main event. By the end, we’re deliberately left with many loose ends. Whether the producers can tie them up in a (presumably very elaborate) bow in the following series remains to be seen. 

Image Credit: Amelia Woon