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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    ‘3 Body Problem’: Numbers don’t quite add up in Netflix adaptation

    How much of your disbelief are you able to suspend?

    The more willing you are to just go along with the new Netflix series “3 Body Problem” and not question its increasingly frequent leaps in logic, the more likely you are to enjoy it.

    An adaptation of Chinese author Liu Cixin’s award-winning 2008 science-fiction novel “The Three-Body Problem,” the intriguing show is one of the first big projects of the Netflix deal signed by “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who are steering this ship along with fellow executive producer, showrunner and writer Alexander Woo (“True Blood”).

    The eight-episode debut season boasts an appealing and diverse cast, including some “Thrones” alums and recognizable faces in movie actors Eiza González (“Baby Driver”) and Benedict Wong, a Marvel Cinematic Universe mainstay.

    Plus, it begins with great promise, presenting the viewer with “Lost”-ian-level mysteries begging to be solved. Unfortunately, after much is revealed, “3 Body Problem” loses a great deal of its early promise, revealing itself to be a show unable to give its huge story the scale it needs to be believable enough.

    Its propulsive first episode, “Countdown” — penned by Benioff, Weiss and Woo and directed, like its solid follow-up installment, “Red Coast,” by Derek Tsang (“Better Days”) — establishes both the major players and the season’s multi-time-period narrative.

    “3 Body Problem” begins in Beijing in 1966, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and introduces the young version of Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng), a woman who has more than one reason to lose faith in humanity. The highly important character is portrayed in 2024 by Rosalind Chao.

    It is in and around present-day London where we meet the members of the group the show’s production notes refer to as the “Oxford Five,” a quintet of young brainiacs who’ve remained in each other’s lives after college as they’ve applied their smarts to this and that. They are Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo), a physics research assistant who, around age 30, already feels it’s too late for him to reach his full potential; Jack Rooney (“Thrones” alum John Bradley), an outspoken chap who’s used his physics degree to develop a multimillion-pound snacks empire; Auggie Salazar (González), the chief science officer for a leading nanotech company; Jin Cheng (Jess Hong), a theoretical physicist with an insatiable thirst for answers to big questions; and Will Downing (Alex Sharp), who chose to teach physics after concluding he could not cut it in the scientific big leagues.

    As Jin and Saul are all too aware, it is an uncertain time in the scientific community.

    “About a month ago,” Jin tells Auggie at a bar, “all the major (particle) accelerators started generating results that make no (expletive) sense.”

    Seconds later, as a man who’d just hit on them and is performing a horrendous rendition of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” on the bar’s karaoke stage, Auggie begins to see a countdown in her field of vision. No one else can see the numbers, which terrifyingly suggest Auggie has a little more than four days before something occurs.

    Also, prominent scientists are dying from apparent suicides, which are being investigated by Wong’s Da Shi, an investigator working for a cloak-and-dagger organization run by the extremely confident Thomas Wade (Liam Cunningham, another “GOT” vet).

    As Auggie’s countdown ticks away and after she gets no answers from a neurologist, she is approached by a mysterious young woman we will come to know as Tatiana (Marlo Kelly), who tells her how to stop seeing the numbers.

    “You don’t want it to get to zero,” Tatiana says.

    Another key character who enters the picture later on in the season is Mike Evans, portrayed as a younger man by Ben Schnetzer and in 2024 by Jonathan Pryce. (On “Game of Thrones,” Pryce played the religious figure the High Sparrow, and his wealthy Evans also has a major worshiping streak in him.)

    We won’t say much more about the story, in part because Netflix has asked that several potential spoilers to be avoided before the series’ launch.

    That makes it difficult to be specific about the mounting frustrations caused by the narrative, as so many of them arrive after the major revelation in “3 Body Problem.” We will note, however, that a virtual-reality component of the story — Jin and others use shiny VR headsets that appear to be far more advanced than anything on the market to play a game to try to address the series’ titular physics problem — seems to be rather pointless in the grand scheme of things.

    Without having read the book, which already has been adapted into the Chinese series “Three-Body,” it’s hard to know which plot shortcomings to pin on Liu and which to attribute to the “3 Body” showrunners. Benioff, Weiss and Woo have made changes to the narrative, including the invention of the Oxford Five, but that is to be expected. And let’s remember that “Game of Thrones” was widely considered to be at its strongest when Benioff and Weiss were working from George R.R. Martin’s book series, not when they’d run out of source material after the author had fallen woefully behind in his writing. That said, some of the latter “3 Body Problem” episodes cause groans that feel at least a bit familiar when you make them.

    Liu penned two follow-up novels in what’s known as the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy, and the show certainly ends with more tale to tell. Shockingly, however, “3 Body Problem” fails to hit you with more than a little nugget of what’s to come. Do not expect anything to leave you waiting breathlessly for its potential return.

    “3 Body Problem” has its moments, such as a jaw-dropping set piece when Auggie’s nanotech is used to achieve a rather questionable end. But based on the way this season all but runs out of momentum at the finale, its ticking countdown may come to an end sooner than later.


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