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'3 Body Problem' season 1 review: Netflix sci-fi drama breaks reality & the rules of science

John Bradley and Jess Hong inspecting a reflective headset

''Don't try to understand it. Feel it.'' That's probably a fair warning when delving into the first season of the new mind-bending sci-fi drama 3 Body Problem, adapted by showrunners David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and Alexander Woo from Liu Cixin's novel 'The Three-Body Problem' ('三体' in Chinese). Set both in the 1960s and present day, the series follows several characters, starting with Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng as younger, Rosalind Chao as older version), an astrophysicist who in 1960s China witnesses her dad being executed for his scientific opinions before she herself makes a scientific breakthrough that starts to fundamentally impact the Earth's population about 60 years later.

Now in 2020s, a friend group known as ''Oxford 5''—theoretical physicist Jin Cheng (Jess Hong), nanotechnology engineer ''Auggie'' Salazar (Eiza González), research assistant Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo), brash billionaire Jack Rooney (John Bradley) and teacher Will Downing (Alex Sharp)—is introduced to a mysterious game that may be letting them know about a massive extraterrestrial threat that'll soon be knocking on humanity's door. They also get involved with detective Da Shi (Benedict Wong) who's looking into a wave of recent deaths of scientists, as well as Thomas Wade (Liam Cunningham), an influential and vulgar intelligence director who ends up overseeing the defence against that upcoming threat.

Based on just the themes, scope and ambition of the story that unfolds after you meet its players, 3 Body Problem certainly makes a stance as a feat of adaptation, which might be expected considering the showrunners' previous work but it is still admirable nevertheless. Not everything works as far as the scope specifically is concerned but the key elements, meaning characters and a coherent sense of stakes, are still understandable for those entering this world for the first time, such as yours truly.

Benioff, Weiss, Woo and their writers' room make a substantial effort to start with character first and foremost as everyone in the main quintet has both a function in the group dynamic and a personal journey that then invites in secondary characters. Impressively, this is done in a quite subtle and gradual fashion rather than relying on character-focused episodes or exposition, the latter which is left to explain some of the scientific jargon instead. You wind up realising the depth of these characters about halfway through, which is always satisfying. Wade is pretty much the only one whose motives and remarks are underdeveloped even when we reach the season finale, while Shi might be intentionally a very generic detective who Wong with his lovely, grumpy on-screen presence happens to develop into a compelling character.

The combination of looming alien hysteria, smart main characters, life-and-death stakes and reality-bending visions offers a great starting point for the series to discuss ethics in science, legacy, morality or a creator's responsibility for their creation, whichever you prefer. It's not necessarily as fluent in that discussion as it wants to be, mainly when we get to the science of it all that often sounds more like dumping lore at your feet. At that point, you do have to surrender, appreciate the fact that the writers don't underestimate your intelligence and just go with the vibe, hoping that the characters and actors playing them will carry you toward a question rather than one of their answers. Episode five is the peak of the show for the outbreak of those questions as a whole, both in terms of the plot and visuals—it's just a question on its own if viewers will get that far. You'd hope they would since it's easily the best episode of the season.

Whereas the filmmakers and actors have figured out the adaptation when it comes to those key elements, the filmmaking itself still leaves a lot to be desired. And sure, when you explore a story that moves through time and space, you do have to pick and choose your battles. What's problematic, however, is that the show is picking and choosing way more than your usual sci-fi drama, whether that's with unremarkable visual effects (supervised by Stefen Fangmeier and Rainer Gombos) or the photography (contributions from Jonathan Freeman, Richard Donnelly and PJ Dillon) that is perfunctory at its best and quite ugly when it's capturing basic dialogue scenes or blending visual effects with the practical lighting. It's a bit concerning when you're visualising big concepts and yet you can't really pick out a standout department executing those visions. You also sadly can't blame unsettling video game aesthetics for all eight episodes.

Seeing how sprawling the narrative is when the series begins to build storylines for future seasons, it's at least nice to know that you have solid performances accompanying you along the way. The Oxford 5 actors have good chemistry with each other, Adepo and González showing signs that they're ready for even more affecting material whilst Sharp adds a nice pinch of melancholy into the relationships as Will receives a terrible health diagnosis. All of them, Hong, Bradley and Wong manage to balance the flaws of everyday humanity with the series' otherworldly events. That is a minor miracle inside a show that is in itself a minor miracle because it works as well as it does. There are a few problems, absolutely, but who's counting? Not me as long as most of it makes sense.

Smileys: Premise, characterisation

Frowneys: Some issues with cinematography and VFX

When a physicist dies, you bury them physics feet under.


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