'3 Body Problem' review: A new take on alien invasions

Cixin Liu’s “The Three-Body Problem,” the first volume of her “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy, has been turned into a Netflix series (as “The Three-Body Problem”). The title could fit a murder mystery, or a story of polyamory, but in this case it refers to a question of mathematics and physics, specifically (says my good friend Wikipedia) that of “taking the positions and velocities (or moments) initials of three point masses and solving their subsequent motion according to Newton's laws of motion and Newton's law of universal gravitation. I have it? Me neither. But, as you may have guessed, or already know, given the worldwide success of the novel, it is science fiction.

(It's also a mystery: there is a detective.)

The series, which premieres on Thursday, has been created by David Benioff and DB Weiss, renowned for “Game of Thrones”, and Alexander Woo (“The Terror: Infamy”), meaning it will be terrifying at times and there will be at least some naked people in it. (In fact, the series includes one of the most disturbing scenes I hope to see on television. It's in episode 5, if you want to skip it or skip to it.) The creators have moved the location of the action from China. to the UK and added a cosmopolitan gang of millennial scientists, whose close and complicated relationships animate the series and make it more than just a collection of interesting notions and scientific magic tricks – or do I mean magical science tricks? People make sense even when they don't; but science, when this is not the case, demands that concessions be made. (By contrast, a 30, yes, 30-episode Chinese adaptation is currently streaming on Peacock.)

Yang Weining (Yu Guming), left, and young Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng), a Chinese physicist whose story unfolds throughout the season.

(Ed Miller/Netflix)

We start, in any case, in China, with the Chinese. It's 1966, and Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng, in a quietly powerful performance) watches in horror as his 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 is sent to a logging camp in the provinces; she later to prison, after being caught with a copy of Rachel Carson's ecological classic “Silent Spring”; then to a mountaintop facility, where her particular scientific work (she is the author of an article titled “The possible existence of phase boundaries within the solar radiation zone and its reflective characteristics”) earned her a place in a equipment that transmits friendly messages to outer space. . She devises a way to convey them better and gets a response, though not the response anyone would expect.

In the course of his work, Ye meets Mike Evans (Ben Schnetzer), a young American who lives in a ramshackle shack, plants trees, and works to protect “a subspecies of northwestern brown swallow.” He also has a copy of “Silent Spring”; Humanity's mismanagement of the Earth is an issue. We will see him later in the person of Jonathan Pryce, leading a kind of cult from a converted tanker truck named “Judgment Day”, and again in the body of Rosalind Chao.

We move to London in 2024 and once again things are getting tough for scientists and science itself. Particle accelerators around the world have been returning results that suggest that physics is wrong, that “science doesn't work.” God is mentioned a lot. Meanwhile, scientists are dying by 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 hanging from his mouth and a model of Columbo, he is the host of the series, a character with a capital C, especially since he looks like he stepped out of a movie. Having “failed up” at Scotland Yard, MI5 and the Office of Security and Counterterrorism, he is working for the made-up Strategic Intelligence Agency, based in a black cube on the Thames. His superior (Liam Cunningham) suggests that this is his last chance. His son calls him “an official of a dysfunctional government.”

Here we meet our young geniuses, whose former common mentor is one of the suicides. Auggie (Eiza González) designs “self-assembling synthetic polymeric nanofibers”; He has also begun hallucinating a series of decreasing numbers, a countdown. Jin (Jess Hong) is conducting a study on particle accelerators, see above. Will (Alex Sharp) is a sad teacher with secrets. Research assistant Saul (Jovan Adepo) realizes that he's too old to make a splash in science, and he won't if he keeps smoking that marijuana; and Jack (John Bradley), a dropout, has built a junk food empire. (His wealth, not to mention his singleness, is represented by the enormous drum set in his living room.) Jin has a boyfriend, Raj (Saamer Usmani), who is not part of the gang, but as a naval officer he will have a role to play in the drama. It's like sci-fi “Friends,” but not as fun, with Will and Jin as Ross and Rachel.

A man sitting at a desk with futuristic silver headphones on him.

Wade (Liam Cunningham) with one of the futuristic-looking headphones that transport the characters to another world in “3 Body Problem.”

(Ed Miller/Netflix)

What raises questions is a silver virtual reality helmet, linked to some of the deceased scientists. The emphasis is on reality: the user can smell, feel, taste and physically interact with the environment. These futuristic gadgets materialize for a select few, packaged in white boxes engraved with the recipient's name and an invitation to “play.” The clean design suggests that aliens like Apple products, or perhaps that Steve Jobs came from space, which some people probably believe. The game involves a planet beset by radical changes in climate due to the gravitational effect of three suns, that three-body problem that makes up the title. Turns out it's some kind of audition. But for what?

The components of the story are familiar: aliens whose world is in danger setting their sights on Earth, remote mind control, human fifth columnists. There is little new under the sun or suns of science fiction. But the parts have been arranged originally, with new flourishes, good characters, and clever use of theoretical physics; The “3 Body Problem” does not seem like a retread. The newest twist in this invasion story is that, interstellar travel being what it is, space invaders aren't expected to arrive for another 400 years. (There are more seasons to come.) Of course, being human, we'll probably forget it for 399, if we believe it at all.

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