Review Roundup: Netflix’s 3 Body Problem

Critics respond to Netflix’s ambitious adaptation of Liu Cixin’s acclaimed sci-fi novel.
Netflix's 3 Body Problem

Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem is one of the most acclaimed sci-fi novels in recent years, becoming the first Asian novel to win a Hugo Award for “Best Novel” — to name just one of its many accolades. And if you’ve read The Three-Body Problem, which is the first novel in a trilogy, then it’s easy to see why. Liu’s story is ambitious, weaving together China’s Cultural Revolution, first contact with aliens, a murder mystery, a video game, and a bizarre physics problem.

But that same sense of ambition is also why the novel has always felt unfilmable. But that didn’t stop Netflix from trying, with the aid of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who know a thing or two about unfilmable adaptations. (The duo previously created Game of Thrones, an adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s epic Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series.)

Netflix is clearly sparing no expense for 3 Body Problem, which looks to be one of 2024’s most ambitious and anticipated TV series. (Here at Opus HQ, anyway.) The series had its premier at the recent SXSW festival, meaning that reviews have already begun popping up. So, has Netflix successfully adapted Liu Cixin’s novel? Or is 3 Body Problem further proof that some novels should just remain novels? Read on for an assortment of critic reactions.

Hoai-Tran Bui, Flattens a singular sci-fi saga”

With their Netflix series 3 Body Problem… the Game of Thrones duo and Woo gamely try to streamline and condense an epic, often impenetrable sci-fi saga. But in the process, they might have gone too far in the other direction. Through its eight-episode first season, 3 Body Problem moves at a brisk, often breakneck speed to convey a sense of spectacle and awe. But in the process, it sacrifices the thing that made Three-Body so singular in the first place: the science.

Cheryl Eddy, Explores huge questions but still feels intimate”

It must be said, 3 Body Problem makes being a science whiz feel like the coolest thing ever, though its egghead characters all deal with agonizing setbacks that remind us how human they are, and science itself takes a beating as things escalate. These nerds are likable — as is the rumpled, fiercely loyal Clarence, and it’s even hard to stay mad at the prickly, sharp-tongued Wade; you can’t help rooting for them as they draw on their various areas of expertise as part of the save-the-world plan.

Daniel Fienberg, More serviceable than dazzling”

It’s a generally handsome show and the aspects like the period scenes in China are impeccable in costume and production design (if extremely superficial in ideological terms). But this was meant to be a HUGE show for Netflix and it only sometimes looks huge.

Alison Herman, An accessible entry point into a deeply esoteric story”

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.

Jordan Hoffman, Just goes for it”

3 Body Problem reworks Cixin Liu’s mammoth book trilogy for a wider audience to great success, though it may annoy some viewers with its far-out sci-fi and speed-of-light plot machinations. Some sequences work better than others — like the video game side story delivering a soupçon of cringe — but many of the performances and one shocking sequence make for a more-than-worthy adaption of the beloved franchise.

Therese Lacson, Your next favorite sci-fi binge”

There are some very high quantum physics concepts in Liu’s books, ones that likely excite astrophysicists but can kind of go over the average reader’s head. 3 Body Problem eases us in, and the natural medium of television also gives us visualizations of some of the book’s higher concepts. It was difficult to imagine a world where an average viewer could sit down and watch a show based on Liu’s books and be enthralled by it, but the television show manages to elaborate on and stitch together ideas that feel complicated on the page.

Malcolm McMillan, The best show of 2024 so far”

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Some storylines don’t land quite as well as others, there are some forgettable performances and not all the CGI looks great. But overall, the storytelling of this show is incredible and reminiscent of Game of Thrones in a big way. And while there are forgettable performances, Liam Cunningham and Benedict Wong are superb. Put it all together and you get a mysterious science-fiction thriller with problems as fun to solve as they are to watch.

Meghan O’Keefe, Better than it ought to be”

The most impressive aspect of 3 Body Problem has to be all the sage ways in which the showrunners have tweaked Liu’s saga for the small screen. All eight episodes of 3 Body Problem Season 1 are propulsive in energy. The series even eschews the trend of adapting one book per season, happily delving into parts of Book 2, The Dark Forest, and clearly setting up Book 3, Death’s End, before the finale’s credits even roll.

Matt Patches, The kind of TV epic we need”

I’m a little in awe of 3 Body Problem. Liu’s books are like a character study of humanity itself; there is inherently too much to chew on. But Benioff, Weiss, and Woo came ready to cook. Their adaptation is gripping from the start and already prioritizing the pieces needed for a coherent endgame. From the trilogy’s pages of information they’ve carved out a visual story, dazzling and frightening.

Rodrigo Perez, An overstuffed and underwhelming mystery box thriller”

The expansive spectacle of the 3 Body Problem and the awe it occasionally produces is often hindered by its inherently middling human melodramas and tortuous plotting.

Alan Sepinwall, One great big mess”

The best thing I can say about 3 Body Problem is that it is a very, very smart piece of adaptation. Benioff, Weiss, and Woo (a longtime writer on True Blood and the creator of Season Two of AMC’s horror anthology The Terror) have done everything they can to blend the big ideas from the books with people who have clear personalities and inner lives, rather than ones who exist entirely as plot functionaries. But even with these various smart deviations from the source material, the show’s first season is middling drama at best.

Ben Travers, A brutal dud”

Where Game of Thrones paired diabolical plots for power with astonishing action, 3 Body Problem offers little personal intrigue to balance its increasingly unimpressive attempts at spectacle. It may not be fair to compare the two — they’re different genres with different origins and different goals — but whether it’s the shared creators and cast, or similar worldviews and barriers to entry, there’s a common thread linking the two series — and not one Netflix is hoping fans notice. Both are easy enough to track, but 3 Body’s problem is it’s far too difficult to enjoy.

3 Body Problem will begin streaming on Netflix on March 21, 2024. Watch the trailer below.

Enjoy reading Opus? Want to support my writing? Become a subscriber for just $5/month or $50/year.
Subscribe Today
Return to the Opus homepage