Review: ‘3 Body Problem’ Is a Galaxy-Brained Spectacle

The aliens who menace humankind in Netflix’s “3 Body Problem” believe in doing a lot with a little. Specifically, they can unfold a single proton into multiple higher dimensions, enabling them to print computer circuits with the surface area of a planet onto a particle smaller than a pinprick.

“3 Body Problem,” the audacious adaptation of a hard-sci-fi trilogy by Liu Cixin, is a comparable feat of engineering and compression. Its first season, arriving Thursday, wrestles Liu’s inventions and physics explainers onto the screen with visual grandeur, thrills and wow moments. If one thing holds it back from greatness, it’s the characters, who could have used some alien technology to lend them an extra dimension or two. But the series’s scale and mind-bending turns may leave you too starry-eyed to notice.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, partnering here with Alexander Woo (“The Terror: Infamy”), are best known for translating George R.R. Martin’s incomplete “A Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy saga into “Game of Thrones.” Whatever your opinions of that series — and there are plenty — it laid out the duo’s strengths as adapters and their weaknesses as creators of original material.

Beginning with Martin’s finished novels, Benioff and Weiss converted the sprawling tomes into heady popcorn TV with epic battles and intimate conversations. Toward the end, working from outlines or less, they rushed to a finish and let visual spectacle overshadow the once-vivid characters.

In “3 Body,” however, they and Woo have a complete story to work with, and it’s a doozy. It announces its sweep up front, opening with a Chinese scientist’s public execution during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, then jumping to the present day, when a wave of notable physicists are inexplicably dying by suicide.

The deaths may be related to several strange phenomena. Experiments in particle accelerators around the world suddenly find that the last several decades’ worth of research is wrong. Brilliant scientific minds are being sent futuristic headsets of unknown provenance that invite them to join an uncannily realistic virtual-reality game. Oh, also, one night all the stars in the sky start blinking on and off.

It all suggests the working of an advanced power, not of the cuddly E.T. variety. What starts as a detective mystery, pursued by the rumpled intelligence investigator Clarence Da Shi (Benedict Wong), escalates to a looming war of the worlds. What the aliens want and what they might do to get it is unclear at first, but as Clarence intuits, “Usually when people with more advanced technology encounter people with more primitive technology, doesn’t work out well for the primitives.”

Most of the first season’s plot comes straight from Liu’s work. The biggest changes are in story structure and location. Liu’s trilogy, while wide-ranging, focused largely on Chinese characters and had specifically Chinese historical and political overtones. Benioff, Weiss and Woo have globalized the story, shifting much of the action to London, with a multiethnic cast. (Viewers interested in a more literal rendition of Liu’s story can watch last year’s stiff but thorough Chinese adaptation on Peacock.)

They’ve also given Liu’s heavy science a dose of the humanities. Liu is a brilliant novelist of speculative ideas, but his characters can read like figures from story problems. In the series, a little playful dialogue goes a long way toward leavening all the Physics 101.

So does casting. Wong puffs life into his generically hard-boiled gumshoe. Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth in “Thrones”) stands out as Thomas Wade, a sharp-tongued spymaster, as does Rosalind Chao as Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist whose brutal experience in the Cultural Revolution makes her question her allegiance to humanity. Zine Tseng is also excellent as the young Ye.

More curious, if understandable, is the decision to shuffle and reconfigure characters from throughout Liu’s trilogy into a clique of five attractive Oxford-grad prodigies who carry much of the narrative: Jin Cheng (Jess Hong), a dogged physicist with personal ties to the dead-scientists case; Auggie Salazar (Eiza González), an idealistic nanofibers researcher; Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo), a gifted but jaded research assistant; Will Downing (Alex Sharp), a sweet-natured teacher with a crush on Jin; and Jack Rooney (John Bradley of “Thrones”), a scientist turned snack-food entrepreneur and the principal source of comic relief.

The writers manage to bump up Liu’s one-dimensional characterizations to two-ish, but the “Oxford Five,” with the exception of Jin, don’t feel entirely rounded. This is no small thing; in a fantastical series like “Thrones” or “Lost,” it is the memorable individuals — your Arya Starks and your Ben Linuses — who hold you through the ups and downs of the story.

The plot, however, is dizzying and the world-building immersive, and the reportedly galactic budget looks well and creatively spent on the screen. Take the virtual-reality scenes, through which “3 Body” gradually reveals its stakes and the aliens’ motives. Each character who dons the headset finds themselves in an otherworldly version of an ancient kingdom — China for Jin, England for Jack — which they are challenged to save from repeating cataclysms caused by the presence of three suns (hence the series’s title).

“3 Body” has a streak of techno-optimism even at its bleakest moments, the belief that the physical universe is explicable even when cruel. The universe’s inhabitants are another matter. Alongside the race to save humanity is the question of whether humanity is worth saving — a group of alien sympathizers, led by a billionaire environmentalist (Jonathan Pryce), decides that Earth would benefit from a good cosmic intervention.

All this attaches the show’s brainiac spectacle to big humanistic ideas. The threat in “3 Body” is looming rather than imminent — these are not the kind of aliens who pull up quick and vaporize the White House — which makes for a parallel to the existential but gradual threat of climate change. Like “Thrones,” with its White Walkers lurking beyond the Wall, “3 Body” is in part a collective-action problem.

It is also morally provocative. Liu’s novels make an argument that in a cold, indifferent universe, survival can require a hard heart; basing decisions on personal conscience can be a kind of selfishness and folly. The series is a bit more sentimental, emphasizing relationships and individual agency over game theory and determinism. But it’s willing to go dark: In a striking midseason episode, the heroes make a morally gray decision in the name of planetary security, and the consequences are depicted in horrifying detail.

Viewers new to the story should find it exciting on its own. (You do not need to have read the books first; you should never need to read the books to watch a TV series.) But the book trilogy does go to some weird, grim — and presumably challenging to film — places, and it will be interesting to see if and how future seasons follow.

For now, there’s flair, ambition and galaxy-brain twists aplenty. Sure, this kind of story is tough to pull off beginning to end (see, again, “Game of Thrones”). But what’s the thrill in creating a headily expanding universe if there’s no risk of it collapsing?

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