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3 Body Problem

"Do not respond."

There were a few different quotes that I debated using here, but almost every single one would have been a spoiler of some kind.

This review will contain spoilers!

This is a very difficult show to review. Partly because I’m not sure how much I should discuss the book trilogy that it is based on and the, at times, significant changes that were made, and partly because even after spending over a day thinking about it, I still don’t know how I feel about this show. On one hand, I don’t think that I enjoyed it. On the other hand, I sobbed twice and several of the quieter moments will stick with me for a very long time. On a third hand, I want to rewatch it and fully dig into it. On a fourth, final hand, I have a sinking feeling that there isn’t anywhere to dig, that this isn’t necessarily a show that will reward that.

Maybe that’s how I’ll review this. Let’s go hand by hand.

Enjoyment is a hard thing to quantify, and it tends to be tied up with whether or not you liked something. I really liked watching 3 Body Problem. It’s very competently made, has several excellent actors with excellent performances, and some stunning imagery. I binged it all in one sitting. I don’t regret doing that, either. But by the end, I felt almost hollow. At some point, I had started to dissect the overall structure of the season as I watched, and that’s never a great sign. As I went further into the season, I started to miss the earlier episodes a lot.

The opening premise immediately hooked me. Science is broken. Renowned scientists are committing suicide in gruesome ways. Auggie has a golden countdown that only she can see. A very creepy woman talks about “The Lord” and can’t be seen on cameras. There’s this VR game that is far beyond anything humanity is capable of. Plus, we’re getting flashbacks to the Cultural Revolution in China and, wow, Zine Tseng is absolutely mesmerizing as a younger Ye Wenjie.

There is more than enough there to carry a show for eight episodes, and yet almost everything is completely wrapped up by the end of the third episode. Auggie’s countdown barely even lasted halfway through the second episode, and that was a very large part of their marketing. It felt like they were speeding through all of the mystery and conspiracy elements in order to get to the aliens. But once we get to the aliens, it lost a lot of what made those earlier episodes feel so unique as opposed to just another science fiction show.

It wasn’t necessary, either. They brought a lot of elements from the second and third books forward. Some of this, like the characters, make sense. It gives the viewer continuity moving forward and lets us get invested in them. But did we have to do the Staircase Project? Couldn’t that have been saved for a second season? Judgement Day and the declaration that “You are bugs!” feels like a very natural and strong endpoint that anything after that almost suffers in comparison. It would have been easy to let those earlier episodes breathe, to spend more time in China, to let the dread and confusion over what was happening grow, to let Evan’s cult actually be a presence and shade them in a bit more before their fate. Of course, that would also leave us with a huge cliffhanger, and as of writing, season two has not been confirmed.

But that’s a very personal critique. Those later episodes were still very good. They’re what made me cry into my blanket at 2:30 in the morning.

Yeah, Will got to me. After spending most of the season wondering why he was there if he was just going to sit on a beach and be sad the whole time, his last conversation with Saul and Jin’s reaction once she found out who bought her a star suckerpunched me. And watching the Staircase Project launch made my heart sink like a stone. And this was the stuff that I wanted to shove into a theoretical next season!

I got invested in our Oxford Five. In almost all of the characters, really. I either adored them, like Jin and Auggie, or wanted to smack them, like Wade. Everyone did a great job, although I’m going to call out Zine Tseng again for just how phenomenal she was. The writing wasn’t always the best. Each character was very clearly given a philosophical stance to espouse with regards to how to respond to the San-Ti, and none of them ever wavered from it. Saul, in particular, had a few scenes where he felt less like a character and more like a generic mouthpiece meant to parrot the “doesn’t personally affect me so I don’t care” stance. Auggie had similar issues towards the end as well.

I’m curious how this will hold up on a rewatch. There are some small details, like how the Follower looks like a young Vera Ye, that I’m sure I missed the first time through. I’m still debating whether the other scientists Jin and Jack met in the game were NPCs or other players. Plus I adored all of the VR scenes. Watching the giant human computer was stunning, and while the CGI didn’t always feel great, it was always pretty.

It feels like it should reward a rewatch. It feels cerebral and heady enough to do so. But everything that I can think of were only small details that enriched the experience as opposed to changing it completely. I don’t know much depth there actually is. The plot moved so quickly and covered so many different things in such a short amount of time that there just wasn’t any room for that kind of depth.

Fundamentally, it was a good looking, occasionally emotionally affecting show that was competently made. There is very, very little wrong with that. If nothing else, I was thrilled just to admire how gorgeous Eiza Gonz├ílez is. But I just can’t shake the feeling that this was more like skipping a stone across the surface of a story as opposed to being able to dive in and really live with it, and that is a lingering bit of hollow disappointment I just can’t shake. It’s very good… just not as good as I had hoped.

Random Thoughts

As I mentioned above, there are a bunch of changes made from the books. All of the present day action is moved from China to England, and almost every character was changed as well. The main character from The Three-Body Problem, Wang Miao, doesn't appear in the show. Instead, his story was split between Auggie (the nanofibers) and Jin (playing the game and infiltrating Evan's group). The Oxford Five in general is also a Netflix creation.

Saul, Jin, Will, and Jack are also characters that only appear in the second and third books. They have more direct comparisons, especially Saul and Will. Given the romantic tension between her and Saul, Auggie might also actually be a character from a later book.

I ended up feeling really bad for Raj at the end. Jin didn't have to end their relationship so coldly, even if he does seem to be totally okay with child murder.

Tatiana was very creepy and very effective as a threatening zealot. Her gentleness with Ye Wenjie at the end and the contrast with her ruthlessness is very compelling.

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An Honest Fangirl loves video games, horror movies, and superheroes, and occasionally manages to put words together in a coherent and pleasing manner.

6 comments:

  1. It sounds very intriguing (and the trailer makes it look really cool), though I'm debating on whether I should rush to watch this or wait until I've read the book. I've heard the book is a bit slow and dense, but your review gives me the impression that the show is adapting it pretty loosely. Will have to think on this one.

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    1. Logan, I think you can watch this without reading the book. Honestly, you might enjoy it better without having the comparison lurking in the back of your mind. It does change a lot in terms of characters, although the major plot beats are pretty much the same. Also, the series moves into events from the second and third book as well, so if you're looking to avoid spoilers, you'll need to read the entire trilogy.

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  2. Interesting... thanks for the feedback. If you mentioned watching the longer Chinese version I'd have asked which you'd suggest watching first. Maybe someone else can answer that. I'll be trying out both if I like the first one

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    1. I want to watch the Tencent version, but haven't yet. From my understanding, though, it is FAR more accurate to the book. It's also significantly longer (30 hours vs 8 hours) if that sways you either way.

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    2. Having the read the first book, I'm not sure if greater fidelity is what I would want. Although I'm curious about it, my first reaction when I heard about it was "They're making a movie out of THAT? Really?" It seems almost as unlikely as the adaptation of Tarkovsky's "Stalker" into a video game.

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    3. Yeah seriously lol. I can't believe it got TWO TV adaptations within a year of each other. It's so strange

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