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Friday, April 19, 2024

‘Game of Thrones’ Creators Have Your Next Netflix Binge

Based on a blockbuster novel by Liu Cixin, and coming on the heels of a lengthy Chinese adaptation currently available on Prime Video, 3 Body Problem, out March 21, is Netflix’s attempt at a bold, bingeable “next big thing,” mixing complex physics and clandestine conspiracies with inexplicable deaths, shadowy government outfits, alternating time periods, and enigmatic agents of outer-space malevolence. Created by Game of ThronesDavid Benioff and D.B. Weiss alongside Alexander Woo, this eight-part science-fiction effort successfully strives to be a rollercoaster of a small-screen series. What that means, however, is that its solid highs are matched by quite a few wearisome lows. Feeling like multiple stories stitched together into an uneven and unwieldly whole, it’s a collection of mysteries that, while rarely boring, is too untidy to consistently grip the imagination.

3 Body Problem’s maiden season begins in 1966 Beijing at Tsinghua University, where young Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng) watches helplessly as her physics professor father is beaten to death for not toeing the communist line by members of Mao’s Red Guard. The Cultural Revolution continues to be a nightmare for Ye, who after toiling at a labor camp is relocated (due to her impressive intelligence) to a top-secret Inner Mongolia base known as Red Coast, where she learns that the Chinese (like the Americans and Russians) have for years been sending transmissions via enormous satellite dishes to the cosmos in the hopes of making contact. Unfortunately, they’ve received no reply, so Ye devises a brilliant—if, given its political symbolism, controversial—idea: point the satellite directly at the sun in order to use it as an amplifier that will project their message into deeper space.

Despite being forbidden from taking such action, Ye surreptitiously does this and, lo and behold, gets a response that forces her to make a momentous choice. At the same time as she embarks upon her civilization-altering path, 3 Body Problem transitions to present-day London, where detective Da Shi (Benedict Wong)—operating on behalf of a covert group led by no-nonsense Wade (Liam Cunningham)—is investigating the latest in a string of recent suicides of global physicists. To that list is added Vera (Vedette Lim), who inexplicably kills herself at the Oxford particle accelerator where she works with Saul (Jovan Adepo). Before this tragedy, both discuss how particle accelerators around the globe are now dispensing baffling readings that suggest everything humanity thought about physics is wrong. “Science is broken,” Saul opines, and so too, apparently, are many people’s minds, including Saul’s good friend Auggie (Eiza González), who’s on the cusp of manufacturing a breakthrough nanofiber technology but who’s terrified by the fact that, like the suicidal scientists, she now constantly sees a numerical countdown projected over her line of vision.

Auggie and Saul are part of a group of friends who studied under Vera before going their separate ways, and it includes brash junk food magnate Jack (John Bradley), mild-mannered teacher Will (Alex Sharp), and talented physicist Jin (Jess Hong). Will has a thing for Jin just as Auggie has one for Saul, yet these romantic entanglements are largely back-seat concerns during most of 3 Body Problem, not only because they’re far less exciting than the insanity that surrounds them but because, until the concluding two episodes, Saul and Will are peripheral nobodies whose roles in this saga are minimal at best. There’s an unweighted aspect to the material’s interpersonal drama, and the result is that every time it concentrates on the thinly realized Saul (a pothead) and Will (a sad sack with a secret), momentum grinds to a screeching halt.

Yu Guming as Yang Weining, Zine Tseng as Young Ye Wenjie in the series 3 Body Problem on Netflix

(L to R) Yu Guming as Yang Weining, Zine Tseng as Young Ye Wenjie

Ed Miller / Netflix

Things get moving once bland Jin visits Vera’s mom (Rosalind Chao) and discovers that her late mentor was habitually playing a video game via a bizarre shiny headset (one that Da Shin seeks, since it’s been spied at other crime scenes) that, when worn, transports users into a cutting-edge VR world where they’re tasked with saving civilizations from apocalyptic calamities. These passages never make total sense and are generally hokey, yet they’re the entryway to 3 Body Problem’s main plot, which concerns both the adult Ye and Mike Evans (Jonathan Pryce), an oil magnate who’s communicating with the very same interstellar beings that Ye originally phoned back in the ’60s. Somehow, these visitors are related to the strange phenomenon surrounding Jin and Auggie, the latter of whom is approached by a woman (whose presence is magically scrubbed from all security cameras) who tells her that the countdown visions will cease if she stops her nanofiber work—and then proves her power to Auggie, and the world, by causing the entire star-filled night sky to repeatedly blink.

3 Body Problem has far more lunacy in store, and once its initial cards are on the table, it picks up steam to the point of being genuinely intriguing. The answer to most of its questions have to do with aliens, albeit with a twist or two that delineate the series from many of its sci-fi brethren. No sooner has it established its promising premise, however, than the show begins to wobble under the weight of figuring out how to develop it—a situation created by the revelation that, instead of being imminent, its ultimate conflict will take place hundreds of years in the future. Assassinations, subterfuge, and scientific brainstorming all play a part in its back half, but Benioff, Weiss, and Woo find it difficult to balance their various concerns in an even-handed way, and the persistent shifts in focus often render the action scattershot to the point of stymying engagement with its narrative right turns.

Marlo Kelly as Tatiana, Eiza González as Auggie Salazar in the series 3 Body Problem on Netflix

(L to R) Marlo Kelly as Tatiana, Eiza González as Auggie Salazar

Ed Miller / Netflix

There’s just so much going on in 3 Body Problem—including sprinkles of political, environmental, religious, philosophical and scientific commentary—that nothing wholly sticks. Moreover, a few characterizations (namely Auggie, who becomes the proceedings’ bleeding-heart conscience) grow more grating with each subsequent episode, and the set-up for its second season and beyond is mostly dispiriting, given that the mystery is gone and what’s left is a battle to save Earth that feels like an unholy hybrid of For All Mankind and Armageddon. Maybe there’s more to its prolonged tale than meets the eye; Liu’s novel, after all, is merely the first installment of a trilogy. For now, though, it comes across as bumpy stab at kickstarting a grand sci-fi franchise.

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