3 Body Problem episode 1-3 review | Game Of Thrones creators tackle chunky sci-fi

3 body problem review
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The laws of physics are taking a holiday and scientists keep turning up dead in Netflix’s 8-part sci-fi epic. Here’s our 3 Body Problem episodes 1-3 review.

Why do none of the characters in 3 Body Problem own any books?

Three hours into Netflix’s new sci-fi epic, I still can’t get this question out of my head. Most of the protagonists are supposed to be Oxford University physics graduates, after all. You’d think the brightest young minds in their field would have the odd textbook, folder or copy of David Beckham’s biography to show for their intellect. Jonathan Pryce’s character owns one book, necessary for plot purposes, but his office has no obvious shelf space to store it.

There’s method to this nit-picking, I promise. With a reported budget of $160m spread over eight episodes, 3 Body Problem is one of the most expensive original series Netflix has ever produced. The average episode costs $5m more than Game Of Thrones at its city-destroying, dragon-packed height.

Looking at the scale of the story Thrones creators David Benioff and D B Weiss are looking to tell with their adaptation of Liu Cixin’s sci-fi novels, it’s not hard to see why. With two timelines (one in present-day London, the other beginning with the murder of a counterrevolutionary in 1966’s Beijing), virtual realities and vast, interstellar conspiracies, 3 Body Problem seems to pack at least a half-dozen speculative fiction staples into its 8-hour story.

And yet for all the fantastical virtual worlds, giant satellite dishes and particle accelerators, 3 Body Problem looks bad. The standardised “Netflix look” paired with some iffy CGI doesn’t lay a good foundation, but most of the sets – presumably down to a combination of time and budget constraints – look conspicuously empty. One office scene shows off bare walls, one cabinet and a single desk. You’d have thought $160m could pay for a trip to a charity shop for some crap to throw around.

Instead, the world of 3 Body Problem just doesn’t feel lived-in. In any other story this might be annoying, but manageable. But for a show that already requires the audience to buy into a high-concept premise, that lack of believability could be a death sentence.

It’s a shame because the premise itself has a lot of promise. Episode One sets up a handful of different mysteries nicely. All the world’s particle accelerators are giving impossible results; top scientists keep dying in suspicious circumstances; an Oxford graduate on the cusp of a major breakthrough is haunted by a countdown only she can see, and all this has something to do with the aftermath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

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Genuine scientists need not apply – this is physics, Dan Brown-style. A show starting with the premise that ‘science is broken’ (I’m paraphrasing, but only just) should give us some indication of where the story is heading. The presence of Thrones alumnus and, more importantly, Moonfall star John Bradley as a university dropout turned snack entrepreneur doesn’t help us take this stuff any more seriously.

When the episodes lean into that nonsense, though, the entertainment value shoots up. Lines like “it’s not easy – being a person in this fucked world” aren’t exactly subtle, but aggressively TV-thriller-y exchanges like “physics is turning to shit – bars can’t be far behind” give a strong sense that the people involved are having a bit of fun despite all the characters’ perpetual gloominess.

For the most part, though, everyone takes this stuff very seriously. Cixin’s fiction is clearly more interested in the scientific possibilities of his creation than the characters occupying it, but when an audience is asked to spend eight hours in their company, the deliberately bland characterisation and lack of humour can’t help but feel a little grating. Three episodes in, I’d still struggle to give a defining characteristic of any of them.

But still, enough intriguing dominos have been set up that, for fans of the genre, the show still has room to turn things around in the five episodes to come. But if Netflix hoped to recapture the mainstream appeal of Game Of Thrones with the start of its new series – I’m not sure it’s found it.

All episodes of 3 Body Problem are streaming on Netflix from 21st March.

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