'3 Body Problem' review: Business unusual at the end of the world

'I will now prove that the TV apple doesn't fall far from the tree... body problem. See what I did there?' Photos: Handout

Funky headsets that transport the wearer into a "hyper-virtual" reality almost indistinguishable from reality. Sinister countdowns superimposed on unfortunate individuals' retinas. Grim repercussions for humanity echoing down through the decades from one person's fateful decision. Human bonds tested, broken and reforged. Swarms of cicadas... and a puking baby chimpanzee.

Welcome to the multilayered, mind-bending, heartstring-tugging science fiction drama 3 Body Problem (henceforth, 3BP), from the brilliant and even more multilayered (etc, etc) Remembrance Of Earth's Past saga by author Liu Cixin – comprising, in order, the novels The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest and Death's End.

It comes to us courtesy of DB Weiss and David Benioff, the same duo praised for the early seasons of Game Of Thrones and reviled for its later ones. For 3BP, they are also collaborating with Alexander Woo, showrunner of the WW2 internment camp-set The Terror: Infamy.

As a fan of the books whose mind and soul are still reeling from the ideas and outcomes therein, I can only say that Weiss and Benioff have done a commendable job of making Liu's sobering, humanistic, philosophical and somewhat China-centric work more accessible to a mass audience. Too much cussing, perhaps, considering how relatively PG the books were.

From a stunning recreation of the first book's brutal opening to its (unfortunately) somewhat muted but promissory finale, the first season of 3BP successfully captures the essence of what Liu put forth in chronicling humanity's struggle with the greatest threat in its history.

'Hey, no one told us when we signed up that the aliens in this one were the same ones from the Skyline movies.''Hey, no one told us when we signed up that the aliens in this one were the same ones from the Skyline movies.'

It won't be much of a spoiler to say that this threat is extraterrestrial in nature, but let's just say an impending visit by ET has seldom been depicted in a more complex, mystique-enshrouded manner.

Earth's entire scientific community and its very science appear to be under siege – not hard to imagine for a world just past pandemic paranoia yet still mired in post-truth "thinking".

Suicides, mysterious malfunctions, failed experiments and bizarre claims draw the attention of a shadowy intelligence organisation represented by the caustic, seemingly heartless Thomas Wade (Liam Cunningham) and gruff but sharp investigator Clarence Shi (Benedict Wong).

Also embroiled in all this, to varying degrees, is a close-knit group of physicist friends: Jin Cheng (Jess Hong), Saul Durand (Jovan Adeppo), Auggie Salazar (Eiza Gonzalez), Jack Rooney (John Bradley) and Will Downing (Alex Sharp).

'You are invited to log on again in future and fire walk with me. Apologies, Mr Lynch.''You are invited to log on again in future and fire walk with me. Apologies, Mr Lynch.'

If only one or two of these character names seems familiar, it's because most of them are reimagined from their book counterparts. In trying to bring Liu's tale to a broader audience, the showrunners have also "internationalised" its characters considerably.

Those familiar with the books should pick up pretty quickly on which of these "newcomers" is meant for the greater – and/or horrifying – destinies as per the author's design.

Survival of entire species is at stake here, not just humanity's but possibly that of the visitors, too. And it's in depicting the lengths to which either will go to survive that 3BP poses its most intriguing, painful questions (sometimes, answering them to gruesome, gory effect).

Forget shared galactic altruism and optimistic views of the future like the United Federation of Planets; or the thought of myriad cultures coexisting like the Old Republic or even Galactic Empire.

Liu's idea of the universe has its myriad sentient species as starkly pragmatic, isolationist by design and jealously possessive of their own resources yet covetous of others: fully primed towards ensuring species-wide survival at the expense of everyone else.

Yet for all its cosmic-level manoeuvrings, mind-boggling talk of higher dimensions and turning protons into quantum computers, 3BP is also surprisingly effective at building palpable human bonds between its characters.

Credit to the cast for this, including Wong and Cunningham as, occasionally and respectively, the angel and devil sitting on everyone's shoulders. (I have to say that Cunningham's Wade, especially, is nowhere near the total jerk he was in the books and comes across almost admirable at times – though it's early days yet, heh.)

From unrequited love to yearnings for a higher purpose, from the misguided faith of zealots to fateful decisions shaped by unexpected betrayal, the cast (shout-outs also to Zine Tseng and Rosalind Chao, playing the same character decades apart) and writers adeptly adapt Liu's work to give us believable beings who anchor us while the lofty ambitions of the source material are explored.

And this is where 3BP has to be commended, for being a hugely ambitious project that does not underestimate the viewer's capacity to absorb and process challenging concepts.

I'm approaching it from the perspective of a reader, however, one who knows where this is all heading – or at least, the bigger picture as woven by Liu, one that the showrunners may not necessarily hold to 100%.

The question is how it will play to those who aren't so familiar with those works, and whether or not 3BP can command their attention sufficiently for the full saga to get produced.

There's no denying, though, that this initial season will reward the patient newcomer in ways both pleasant and discomforting. After all, it's not often we find ourselves itching to race towards the (possible) doom of our species.

3 Body Problem arrives on Netflix on March 21.

8 10


(Human) race you to Armageddon

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