(L to R) John Bradley as Jack Rooney, Jess Hong as Jin Cheng, Mark Gatiss as Isaac Newton, Reece Shearsmith as Alan Turing, Jenson Cheng as Kublai Khan.

Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem’ Has No Solution

The epic sci-fi series examining science and religion attempts to condense author Liu Cixin’s trilogy into eight episodes

(L to R) John Bradley as Jack Rooney, Jess Hong as Jin Cheng, Mark Gatiss as Isaac Newton, Reece Shearsmith as Alan Turing, Jenson Cheng as Kublai Khan.

Photo by Ed Miller/Netflix © 2024

In the first season of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem—from Game of Thrones creators David Benioff & D.B. Weiss and The Terror’s Alexander Woo—too much happens, yet not enough. The most interesting parts of its premise don’t last nearly as long as they should, while some of its meandering arcs and subplots long outstay their welcome. Based on the award-winning Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy by Chinese author Liu Cixin, this partially Westernized adaptation is filled with fascinating ideas, but in condensing the sprawling sci-fi epic for the screen, they’re rarely explored with enough visual panache to linger in the heart and mind, or with enough emotional detail to yield catharsis.

The first of the show’s eight episodes represents 3 Body Problem at its most intriguing. A flashback to China’s 1966 Cultural Revolution sees a famous physicist being publicly beaten, though not for reasons you might expect. Scientists and intellectuals were certainly targeted by Chairman Mao, but in this case, it’s because teaching the Big Bang Theory leaves the slightest possibility that time had an originator: a god who set things in motion. If there’s one thing the series hopes to do, it’s blur the lines between science and religion.

This ’60s-set timeline sees the aforementioned physicist’s daughter, Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng) being whisked away to a mysterious labor camp in the shadow of a giant satellite, whose purpose is initially a mystery. However, what she soon discovers at this secret base ends up having ripple effects in the present, during which most of the show is set. It largely follows a group of five scientist friends in Oxford—Americans Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo) and Auggie Salazar (Eiza González), Englishmen Will Downing (Alex Sharp) and Jack Rooney (John Bradley), and New Zealander Jin Cheng (Jess Hong)—composite characters from across Liu’s three novels, many of whose Chinese counterparts on the page never actually meet.

(L to R) Eve Ridley as The Follower, John Bradley as Jack Rooney, Jess Hong as Jin Cheng.

Courtesy of Netflix

Ranging from nanotech industrialists to low-level researchers, this central group ends up in the middle of a crisis in science, where all the world’s major particle accelerators have begun providing nonsensical, paradoxical results. Physics itself has begun to break down, leading to a widespread loss of faith in the scientific community. This crisis also appears to be related to a string of suicides involving various physicists, including a friend of the group’s, which brings them all back together after some time apart. But before long, a few of them begin seeing things that ought to be impossible, like major cosmic events in the night sky blinking in code, and even digital countdowns right in their line of sight, as if the boundaries between the natural and mechanical worlds had started to blur.

The issue however, is that 3 Body Problem is very quick to answer all its lingering mysteries, and not always in ways that make them more alluring. Some of its twists and turns reveal enormous storytelling potential, like a mysterious organization that may be communicating with the “Oxford Five,” though their methods of making contact tend to dull the story. A handful of main characters are gifted futuristic VR headsets (adapted from the novels’ VR bodysuits), leading to a video game in which they solve various puzzles involving historical figures and doomed civilizations. But despite the realistic presentation of these games, they’re hard to get invested in, since nothing they depict is real, and the characters playing them suffer no consequences for losing, even though we see them maimed and stabbed in the game-world multiple times. All they need to do is take off their headsets and play again, a strange status quo that the show maintains for multiple episodes.

Eiza González as Auggie Salazar.

The answers to each character’s questions are momentarily interesting, but the show tends to immediately sidestep any cliffhangers or lingering questions with specifics that deflate most of the tension. A major plot twist midway through is immediately followed by a reveal that all but guarantees the show’s genre set ups won’t be paid off anytime soon. Another reveal soon after, involving mind-blending AI on a quantum scale, manifests as enormous, Lovecraftian horror when it’s revealed, but is practically never seen again. There’s a key moment during which the show begins visually exploring what living and perceiving in higher physical dimensions might look and feel like—courtesy of a 360-degree camera that gazes in all directions at once—but this, too, is but a fleeting bit of window dressing.

All of these ideas are tied into the show’s underlying premise (i.e. the question of “who” exactly is causing these disruptions), but where Liu’s books have the room to explore these heady concepts, the show mostly skims over them. Perhaps its one lasting concept, which arises in the back half of the season and actually sticks around, is that the show’s mysterious antagonists may be omnipresent, and their ability to see and hear all things makes them especially godlike. The show initially suffers from a lack of wider perspective on its events, but when the villains’ destructive plans are finally revealed to the world, we’re finally shown hints of global pandemonium, as though an all-knowing god had passed judgment on humanity, leading to a multitude of responses, from fanaticism to total nihilism.

(L to R) Eve Ridley as The Follower, Sea Shimooka as Sophon.

Courtesy of Netflix

However, this collapse of science and religion is rooted in characters who aren’t really interesting. There are a handful of exceptions, but they all fit a pattern that works against the show’s attempts to tell an engaging story. The likes of Auggie, Jin, and Saul are mostly straightforward, and when they’re swept up in these events much larger than themselves, they have a tendency to feel overwhelmed, but there’s nothing to make any of them really stand out. The most straightforward dramatic character who actually works as an emotional lynchpin is Sharp’s Will Downing, though his story—of confronting his own mortality, and wrestling with whether or not to confess his love for Jin—has little bearing on the larger goings on.

In science, a “three-body problem” is an unsolvable quandary caused by the incalculable movements of a system made of three particles or celestial bodies... an all-too-fitting descriptor.

The show’s most memorable characters happen to be the group’s inappropriate friend Jack, a hard-boiled English detective named Da Shin (Benedict Wong) sent to investigate them when things go awry, and the latter’s sardonic Irish boss at a secret government organization, Thomas Wade (Liam Cunningham). They’re fast-talking, to the point, and rarely get swept up in sentiment, and above all else, they’re incredibly funny, too. But this also means that the show is at its most entertaining when centering the three of them, rather than their more sincere comrades, who rarely express themselves as three-dimensional people outside the confines of the plot. It may seem strange to say, but 3 Body Problem actually works best in the rare moments when it doesn’t take itself too seriously. When it’s emotionally engaged, it’s kind of a bore.

Hints of gripping ideas emerge throughout 3 Body Problem, from religious fanaticism as seen through an atheistic lens, to the complex scientific solutions its characters concoct to get humanity back on track. However, the show switches focus too many times in quick succession for any one concept to stick. It rarely presents these in any visually inventive or engaging ways, despite the source material’s many novel ideas, and it renders its most sincere characters mere delivery devices for information.

In science, a “three-body problem” is an unsolvable quandary caused by the incalculable movements of a system made of three particles or celestial bodies. It’s chaotic and ever-changing. An all-too-fitting descriptor for a show whose plot shifts like quicksand, and features no resolution.

Published on March 22, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter