Review: '3 Body Problem' is an alien invasion story that doesn't feel like a retread

Cixin Liu’s “The Three-Body Problem,” the first volume in his “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy, has become a Netflix series (as “3 Body Problem”). The title might fit a murder mystery, or a story of polyamory, but refers in this case to a matter of math and physics, specifically (says my good friend Wikipedia) that of “taking the initial positions and velocities (or momenta) of three point masses and solving for their subsequent motion according to Newton’s laws of motion and Newton’s law of universal gravitation.” Got that? Me neither. But, as you may have guessed, or already know, given the novel’s global success, it’s science fiction.

(It’s also a mystery — there’s a detective.)

The series, which premieres Thursday, has been created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, of “Game of Thrones” renown, and Alexander Woo (“The Terror: Infamy”), which is to say it will be gruesome at times and there will be at least a few naked people in it. (Indeed, the series includes one of the most disturbing scenes I ever hope to see on television. It’s in Episode 5, if you want to skip over it, or skip to it.) The creators have shifted the locus of the action from China to the U.K. and added a cosmopolitan gang of millennial scientists, whose close, complicated relationships animate the series and make it something more than a collection of interesting notions and scientific magic tricks — or do I mean magical science tricks? People make sense even when they aren’t sensible; but science, when it doesn’t, requires you to make allowances. (For contrast, a 30, yes, 30-episode Chinese adaptation is currently streaming on Peacock.)

We begin, anyway, in China, with the Chinese. It’s 1966, and Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng, in a quiet, powerful performance) watches in horror as her professor father is beaten to death by anti-intellectual Red Guards for teaching the “counterrevolutionary” theories of relativity and the Big Bang. Guilty by association, she’s shipped off to to a logging camp in the provinces; then to prison, having been discovered with a copy of Rachel Carson’s ecology classic “Silent Spring”; then to a mountaintop installation, where her particular science chops — she’s the author of a paper titled “The Possible Existence of Phase Boundaries Within the Solar Radiation Zone and Their Reflective Characteristics” — earn her a place on a team beaming friendly messages to outer space. She devises a way to beam them better, and gets an answer back, though not the answer anyone would expect.

In the course of her work, Ye meets Mike Evans (Ben Schnetzer), a young American, living in a ramshackle hut, planting trees and working to protect “a subspecies of the northwestern brown swallow.” He has a copy of “Silent Spring” too; humanity’s poor stewardship of the Earth is a theme. We’ll see him later in the person of Jonathan Pryce, leading a sort of cult from a refurbished tanker christened “Judgment Day,” and her again in the body of Rosalind Chao.

We move to London, 2024, and once again, things are tough for scientists and science itself. Particle accelerators around the world have been turning up results that suggest that physics is wrong, that “science is broken.” God gets mentioned a lot. Scientists, meanwhile, are dying at their own hand at an alarming rate, or simply abandoning their work, and Det. Clarence Da Shi (Benedict Wong) is on the case. With a cigarette dangling from his mouth and fashions by Columbo, he’s the series’ anchor, a character with a capital C, not least because he seems to have stepped out of a movie. Having “failed upward” out of Scotland Yard, MI5 and the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, he’s working for the invented Strategic Intelligence Agency, based in a black cube on the Thames. His superior (Liam Cunningham) suggests this is his last chance. His son calls him “a functionary for a dysfunctional government.”

Here we meet our young geniuses, whose shared old mentor is one of the suicides. Auggie (Eiza González) designs “self-assembling synthetic polymer nanofibers”; she has also begun hallucinating a declining series of numbers, a countdown. Jin (Jess Hong) is conducting a survey of particle accelerators, see above. Will (Alex Sharp) is a sad sack teacher with secrets. Research assistant Saul (Jovan Adepo) figures that he’s already too old to make a splash in science, and he won’t if he keeps smoking that pot; and Jack (John Bradley), a dropout, has built a junk food empire. (His wealth, not to mention his bachelorhood, is signified by the enormous drum set in his living room.) Jin has a boyfriend, Raj (Saamer Usmani), who isn’t part of the gang, but as a naval officer will have a part to play in the drama. It’s like a sci-fi “Friends,” but not as funny, with Will and Jin as its Ross and Rachel.

Raising questions is a silvery virtual reality headset, linked to some of the late scientists. The emphasis is on reality — the wearer can smell and feel and taste and physically interact with the environment. These futuristic gizmos materialize for a chosen few, packed in white boxes with the recipient’s name embossed and an invitation to “play.” The clean design suggests that aliens are fond of Apple products, or perhaps that Steve Jobs came from space, which some people probably do believe. The game involves a planet beset by radical changes in climate owing to the gravitational effect of three suns — that three-body problem that comprises the title. It’s a sort of audition, it turns out. But for what?

The story’s components are familiar — aliens whose world is in peril setting their sights on Earth, remote mind control, human fifth columnists. There’s little new under the sci-fi sun, or suns. But the parts have been originally arranged, with fresh trimmings, good characters and some clever use of theoretical physics; “3 Body Problem” doesn’t feel like a retread. The most novel twist in this invasion story is that, interstellar travel being what it is, the space invaders aren’t expected to arrive for 400 years. (There are more seasons to come.) Of course, humans being humans, we’ll likely forget about it for 399, if we believe it at all.

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