'3 Body Problem' is not 'Game of Thrones' with aliens — but it's just getting started

zine tseng as ye wenjie in three body problem. she's a young woman sitting in front of a control panel, wearing a brown hat with a brim, and a blue jacket. bathed in warm light, she looks over her shoulder
Zine Tseng as Ye Wenjie in "3 Body Problem."Ed Miller/Netflix
  • "3 Body Problem" is David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' first major post-"Game of Thrones" venture.

  • The Netflix series is based on Liu Cixin's "Remembrance of Earth's Past" trilogy.

  • Along with co-showrunner Alexander Woo, the pair craft a series that feels like a setup for something larger.

If you go back and look at the first batch of reviews for HBO's "Game of Thrones" — the first blockbuster universe that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss succeeded in launching — you'd be forgiven for not believing you were reading about the zeitgeist-defining juggernaut it became.

At the time, "Game of Thrones" bore the weight of living up to the prestige precedent set by medium-defining titles like "The Sopranos," and doing so while also being "quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap," as Slate called it at the time. It became the series that would define the network in the 2010s, setting a new standard for appointment viewing in the social media age. While some reviewers remarked on the show's great potential, others certainly weren't leaping to label it a hit.

Similarly, it's hard to tell how "3 Body Problem" will pan out even from its first season, which by the end still feels like it's only barely gotten started. Netflix certainly seems to hope that Benioff and Weiss, along with co-showrunner Alexander Woo (an HBO alum by way of "True Blood"), can pull it off again and deliver yet another major genre hit.

But "3 Body Problem," which oscillates from murder mystery to extraterrestrial sensibilities that should tickle any Carl Sagan fan's interest, sometimes feels too big for itself. Conversely, that large scope is also what makes it so compelling.

Zine Tseng's performance as Wenjie is a standout

a struggle session during the chinese cultural revolution in three body problem, with text in mandarin heralding the beginning of a new age. hundreds hold up little red books as two red guards force a man down on stage
A struggle session depicted in "3 Body Problem."Netflix

"3 Body Problem" is based on Chinese author Liu Cixin's "Remembrance of Earth's Past" trilogy. The first novel of the series, "The Three-Body Problem," won the 2015 Hugo Award. Before Netflix got its hands on it, reports circulated in 2018 that Amazon's Prime Video was looking to adapt the story for a cool $1 billion.

The series begins in 1966 during the bloody Cultural Revolution in China. Young astrophysicist Ye Wenjie witnesses her father Ye Zhetai, a physics professor at Tsinghua University, beaten to death onstage during a struggle session where he's accused of being a counter-revolutionary. A year later, while working as part of a construction corps in Mongolia, she's caught with a taboo book and conscripted to put her science acumen to use at a military research base.

There, Wenjie sends a message into space. Miraculously, she gets a response: Do not respond to this message. If you do, my people will conquer your planet.

Wenjie tells them to come.

These early sequences featuring Zine Tseng's sublime Wenjie (Rosalind Chao takes on the role later in the series, after 40 years have passed) are the bedrock of the series, thriving in the specificity of history. They manage to answer an impossible question crucial to the show's ethos: How does a human come to willingly, actively believe their species is so far beyond saving that they invite conquest?

In a brilliant debut performance, Tseng manages to tread the fine line between sympathy and steel, and director Derek Tsang (who helmed the first two episodes) doesn't shy away from depicting the stark violence and betrayal of her youth.

The modern-day storyline is less compelling — at least so far

jin cheng and jack rooney in three body problem, dressed in historical garments, soaking set, and peering out of a tub of water
Jin Cheng (Jess Hong) and Jack Rooney (John Bradley) in "3 Body Problem."Ed Miller/Netflix

In the present, "3 Body Problem" remixes some Chinese characters from Liu's novel to form a global ensemble cast, with most of the action taking place in London as a group of five Oxford physics alums get caught up in a mystery that's killing scientists around the world. Meanwhile, gruff intelligence officer Da Shi (Benedict Wong) and his boss Thomas Wade ("Thrones" alum Liam Cunningham, aka Ser Davos Seaworth) attempt to follow the trail of dead physicists to figure out what the hell is going on.

"3 Body Problem" isn't able to do for this cast of characters what it does for Ye Wenjie in those rich, early sequences, and at times, its myriad storylines lead to uneven pacing. Instead, the show works best when it allows those characters to dive into the meat of the problems themselves. Some of the show's biggest-scale — and most intellectually intriguing — sequences take place in a virtual world that allows Benioff, Weiss, and Woo to render everything from a planet engulfed in flame to massive armies functioning as computers.

If you're looking for "Thrones"-level gore, in or out of this virtual world, you'll find traces of it here and there. Those moments are best left unspoiled.

sophon in three body problem, a woman in a black dress with a sword strapped to her back, walking through a sea of lava and flame. she looks threatening and powerful
A planet engulfed in flame in "3 Body Problem."Netflix

Then, of course, there are the aliens, who, rest assured, are definitely coming to Earth. "3 Body Problem" has a "Contact"-like bent, in that it attempts to use science and extraterrestrial life to interrogate the idea of God itself. It's a great conceit, but not one that always connects in the show, which tends to deploy heavy-handed metaphors for the relationship between humanity and its potential conquerors.

Unfortunately, discovering aliens is more interesting than going to war with them, at least this season. Ye Wenjie's pivotal decision hangs heavy over the show's early episodes when viewers are just getting the scope of its ramifications. But later on, the series loses the curiosity, and thorny ruminations on human nature, that made it compelling in the first place.

But "3 Body Problem" is worth your time, if at least to see what some of television's greatest hitmakers have taken on next. While the show can feel like eight hours of setting up stakes for future battles, those eight hours contain truly great moments of visual spectacle, memorable performances, and ruminations on what it actually means to be human. If this were a spaceship, Netflix has succeeded in getting it into orbit — now all that remains is to see how it will hopefully be able to stick the reentry.

"3 Body Problem" premieres March 21 on Netflix.

Read the original article on Business Insider