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Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem’ Cements ‘Game of Thrones’ Creators as Masters of Adapting the Unadaptable: TV Review

Before a rushed ending soured the “Game of Thrones” fanbase on showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the duo had rightfully earned acclaim for wrangling a seemingly unadaptable series of books into a damn good adaptation. Author and screenwriter George R.R. Martin had written “A Song of Ice and Fire” as a partial response to the strictures of TV, crafting a story with the sprawling ensemble, major battles, sex, violence and abrupt demises he couldn’t work into scripts for the likes of NBC and CBS. The book series kicked off in 1996, just a few years before the rise of premium cable culture drivers would make television more friendly to artistic ambition and less subject to the FCC. Aided by a stellar cast and strong support from HBO, Benioff and Weiss nonetheless did exceptional work translating Martin’s vision into a nuanced drama with a deep bench of antiheroes and competing points of view. Before “Game of Thrones” was a juggernaut and, eventually, a disappointment, it was a smart, considered, and palpably affectionate take on its source material.

For their next big swing, the producers have teamed up with “True Blood” alumnus Alexander Woo to take on an even steeper challenge. The Chinese science fiction trilogy “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” spans hundreds of years, mostly unconnected characters and several multi-page exegeses on the ABCs of particle physics. To turn writer Cixin Liu’s creation into a Netflix series, the team would have to do more than marshal resources or re-earn the trust of those burnt by how “Game of Thrones” limped across the finish line. This adaptation demands re-conceiving large chunks of plot from the ground-up while retaining Liu’s themes, not to mention visualizing concepts with less precedent onscreen than the fantasy tropes Martin deployed and subverted. The result shows some of the strain of this Herculean task, but also proves the early seasons of “Thrones” were neither a fluke nor a testament to Martin alone. Benioff and Weiss remain master adaptors, and together with Woo, they’ve opened an accessible entry point into a deeply esoteric story while rendering the action in a suitably epic scope.

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“The Three Body Problem” and “3 Body Problem” — the title of Liu’s first volume altered enough to differentiate book from show, though not enough to avoid confusion — start in the same time and place. As the Cultural Revolution tears through China, young scientist Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng) watches a mob beat her father to death in an anti-intellectual frenzy. The scene sets up one of the saga’s most powerful ideas: that a brilliant mind could grow so disillusioned with humankind they might turn their allegiance elsewhere, convinced our species is beyond hope of guiding its own destiny.

Ye’s radicalization, which takes root at a mysterious military base, is interspersed as flashbacks throughout the eight-part season’s early episodes. Most of “3 Body Problem” takes place in the present day, when investigator Da Shi (Benedict Wong) looks into a string of apparent suicides by high-profile researchers across the globe. The funeral of one Oxford scholar reunites five former classmates who will go on to play an outsized role in what turns out to be a slow-motion global catastrophe: physicists Jin Cheng (Jess Hong) and Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo); materials scientist Auggie Salazar (Eiza Gonzalez); wealthy entrepreneur Jack Rooney (John Bradley); and the ailing Will Downing (Alex Sharp). An older Ye Wenjie (Rosalind Chao) is there, too, though it’s initially unclear how she arrived in the U.K. or spent the intervening years.

Many of these characters are invented, blended together or substantially altered for the sake of a streamlined narrative. It does strain credulity that a conflict with these stakes would happen to rest on a small group of friends — but as “3 Body Problem” unfolds, that’s one of the least unbelievable aspects of an increasingly outlandish plot. In exchange for some slight raising of the eyebrows, “3 Body Problem” gets a core cast who act as anchors to a quite literally high-flying tale of humanity’s survival. By the finale, cryogenic freezing and nuclear-powered space travel have been casually introduced to the equation; before we get there, we situate ourselves in Jack’s boyish hedonism, Saul’s cynical streak and Will’s unrequited crush on Jin. “3 Body Problem” is TV now, and TV needs a compact set of interdependent actors akin to a workplace or a family unit. Only Jin’s boyfriend Raj (Saamer Usmani), an officer in the Royal Navy, feels truly peripheral. Their relationship seems practically nonexistent, coming off as an awkward way to introduce a player who quickly breaks off on his own journey.

After their mentor’s death, each Oxford alumnus finds themselves drawn into the ongoing intrigue. Auggie starts seeing an ominous countdown wherever she looks, a hallucination that seems connected to her research into nanofibers. Jin and Jack get sent copies of the same futuristic headset Da Shi keeps finding at crime scenes. It’s an ultra-advanced VR game, one that contains eye-popping imagery from the series premiere’s director Derek Tsang and his colleagues, including “Thrones” stalwart Jeremy Podeswa. Charged with saving a civilization from an unpredictable set of cataclysms — Jin’s game is set in imperial China, Jack’s medieval England — the player commands a reality with an uncanny mix of historical detail and computer-aided effects. NPCs “dehydrate” themselves into flat husks to wait out extreme weather events, or suffer with horrifying verisimilitude if they don’t do so in time. There’s a sense of urgency to the game, which offers clues to the motivations of those who built and distributed it.

The actual three-body problem is a riddle of physics, which can’t consistently predict the motion of three masses in each other’s orbit, whether molecules or planets. The game is one way to illustrate such wonky, cerebral ideas, a trick “3 Body Problem” consistently pulls off. Later, a substance invisible to the human eye drives a breathtaking action sequence where the inability to see the cause of such chaos only fuels our terror and awe. The moment all of Earth comes face-to-face with the extraterrestrial force behind the game, the dead scientists and Augie’s visions, it’s depicted with trippy visuals that merge “Inception” with “The War of the Worlds.” At the same time that “3 Body Problem” grounds its story in a crew of curious young people, the show also imbues a sense of geeky grandeur.

Benioff, Weiss and Woo aren’t always able to bridge the divide between these two poles. It can be jarring to hear characters in a recognizably contemporary setting discuss building a spaceship factory on the moon. (Despite the aforementioned scenes, some of the most out-there elements of “3 Body Problem” are described rather than shown.) “Thrones” composer Ramin Djawadi contributes an eerie, entrancing theme, but his score has to share space with a pop soundtrack with songs that are sometimes distractingly on-the-nose in their efforts to explain the show’s events in vernacular terms. One suspects that Liu’s world is so abstract that even the best adaptation possible will be difficult for some viewers to fully wrap their heads around, a hurdle that will only grow higher as the series continues.

Nevertheless, “3 Body Problem” feels impressively close to that ideal — and not all of its accomplishments are due to structural choices or feats of filmmaking. A stoic, forceful Chao delivers a stirring portrait of fanaticism curdled into regret; among the younger cast, Hong projects intellect and emotion in equal measure. “3 Body Problem” is ultimately about an asymmetrical war that pits humankind against adversaries we can neither see nor understand. All the more important, then, to make one side of the exchange indelible enough to carry a show on their own.

“3 Body Problem” premiered at SXSW on March 8. All eight episodes of “3 Body Problem” will be available to stream on Netflix on March 21.

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