Netflix's '3 Body Problem' is an engrossing tale of a hostile alien invasion (review)

a woman floats in the air in front of a star and two moons
Still from Netflix's "3 Body Problem." (Image credit: Netflix)

Netflix has found a most prominent seat at the head of the table for provocative sci-fi fare with the release of "3 Body Problem," a very different shade of existential alien infiltration project crafted with an epic scope and profound environmentalism topics which must be witnessed to be believed, all distilled down to an eight-hour marvel.

Adapted from the "Remembrance of Earth's Past" trilogy of Hugo Award-winning science fiction novels by Chinese author Cixin Liu, "3 Body Problem" was created by "Game of Thrones"' David Benioff and D.B. Weiss with "True Blood's" Alexander Woo, so it's got serious Hollywood credentials straight out of the gate. Netflix's multi-layered prestige series takes its name (a term relating to orbital mechanics) from the first book in that sprawling apocalyptic trilogy.

The saga begins during the Chinese Cultural Revolution when a physics graduate (Zine Tseng) watches her father murdered for teaching the Big Bang theory. She later gets recruited while imprisoned to head up a secret SETI-like listening post and remote radar station in Inner Mongolia. An infamous 1977 radio communication received years later becomes the catalyst for chaos on a never-seen global level.

Related: '3 Body Problem:' How Netflix's sci-fi saga employs the famous Wow! SETI signal

Promotional art for Netflix's "3 Body Problem." (Image credit: Netflix)

Here's the official synopsis:

"A young woman's fateful decision in 1960s China reverberates across space and time to a group of brilliant scientists in the present day. As the laws of nature unravel before their eyes five former colleagues reunite to confront the greatest threat in humanity's history."

Shifting to modern times, Da Shi, a gruff London detective (Benedict Wong), investigates a bizarre suicide linked to dozens of strange scientist deaths around the world. He's conscripted into a clandestine organization led by a mysterious figure named Thomas Wade (Ian Cunningham), a sardonic "fixer" with unlimited cash and resources tossed into a frantic fight to try and halt the invasion before it's too late.

In a nutshell, it's an eight-episode, non-linear sci-fi series that hops around telling its somber tale of how our planet reacts to and prepares for an imminent invasion of super-smart hostile aliens. These manipulative extraterrestrials have abandoned their home planet's climatic horrors and gravitational anomalies due to its position around three suns. There are ample fringe ideas tossed into the maddening mix, which can be confounding to the average layperson but it should remain stimulating to more science-based viewers familiar with these baffling astrophysical topics.

After fruitless attempts are made to solve the Trisolaran's planetary problems by predicting the periods of calamity via a hi-tech chrome headset for a VR experience called Three-Body, the invited armada makes a beeline for our Big Blue Marble.

Various factions form after irrefutable proof is revealed that these approaching visitors' intent is not a elaborate hoax or the result of deep-fake hysteria, with secretive folks creating a floating alien-worshipping commune, and a gang of Oxford scientist friends swearing to protect Earth by thinking up crazy contingency plans.

"3 Body Problem" is graced with an incredible international cast that provides exceptional performances by Liam Cunningham, Benedict Wong, Jovan Adepo, John Bradley, Rosalind Chao, Eiza González, Jess Hong, Marlo Kelly, Alex Sharp, Sea Shimooka, Zine Tseng, Saamer Usmani, and the great Jonathan Pryce.

With a massive ensemble of multicultural characters to follow and an avalanche of smart exposition to digest, not to mention tough concepts like quantum entanglement, weaponized nanotechnology, and celestial mechanics, it would be wise to get a good night's sleep prior to immersing oneself in each chilling chapter.

While the cryptic Trisolarans (aka the San-ti) endure the long 450-year journey from their insane homeworld to our stable star system, highly-advanced supercomputer constructs called sophons are sent out at near light-speed to be the eyes and ears for the refugee aliens, who stage all manner of unnatural illusions and experimental deceptions to create division among Earth's citizens and disrupt our scientific community so their arrival won't be met by a superior technological counterforce.

When a series serves up tempting visuals like a virtual reality netherworld replete with flaming horses, dark skies filled with blinking stars, hallucinatory countdown clocks, desiccated alien life forms, a nano-fiber slaughter show in the Panama Canal, and a message relayed around the world seen on every cell phone, TV, computer and digital billboard declaring that we're all bugs, you know you're in for a head-spinning yarn that ends its season on a depressing-yet-hopeful cliffhanger note.

Promotional art for Netflix's "3 Body Problem." (Image credit: Netflix)

Blessed with Netflix's deep pockets and the considerable experience of Benioff and Weiss, "3 Body Problem" is a top-shelf production with authentic period pieces, imaginative VR dreamscapes, and far-out dilemmas that invite fans to ponder just which faction one would swear allegiance to if this unsettling situation came true.

Directors Jeremy Podeswa, Minkie Spiro, Andrew Stanton and Derek Tsang divide up the eight episodes with considerable filmmaking acumen that draws fans into both the macro/micro levels of the sci-fi saga, which shifts between China and the U.K.

Emmy-winning composer Ramin Djawadi, who conjured up all that magnificent music for "Game of Thrones," provides a haunting score here that deepens the drama and sets the correct ambiance for the serious proceedings that slowly unfold.

With so many storytelling cogs and wheels turning at the same time, it’s the ideal sci-fi series to get lost inside as Earthlings attempt to stop the San-ti's invasion fleet that won't arrive for centuries. Showrunners Benioff, Weiss, and Woo are off to a fantastic start with this cerebral adaptation and we're eager for the second season to see what ingenious solutions are postulated and proposed to save our poor planet.

"3 Body Problem" streams exclusively on Netflix starting Mar. 21, 2024

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Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.