With Netflix's 3 Body Problem, Game of Thrones’ creators craft a mind-boggling sci-fi show with a surprising amount of heart

Sophon hovers in the air with 3 suns behind her in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV series
Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV adaptation is as moving as it is brain-melting. (Image credit: Netflix)

Liu Cixin’s 3 Body Problem (3BP) book series is, according to some people, difficult to follow. A three-part saga inspired by real-world history, packed with headache-inducing metaphysical concepts, and with an awkwardly structured narrative, Cixin’s seminal works have been deemed unfilmable since the series' first entry was published in 2008.

So when Netflix decided to make a show based on said literature, there was only one duo with the expertise to deliver a gripping, grounded take on them: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Famous for bringing George R. R. Martin’s seemingly unadaptable Game of Thrones novels to life, the pair appeared to be the perfect fit for a prestige TV adaptation of 3 Body Problem.

Trading bloody fantasy for the mind-bending sci-fi of Cixin’s books, though, wouldn’t be straightforward. The 3 Body Problem trilogy is incredibly dense and cerebral; so much so that some viewers might find it hard to not only follow events as they unfold, but also to understand its abstract science. To overcome this obstacle, Benioff, Weiss, and fellow showrunner Alexander Woo (True Blood) leaned into what they knew best: repackaging sweeping, convoluted tales as deeply relatable, character-driven stories with real human heart.

War of the worlds

Bai and Ye stand looking at something in a forest clearing in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV show

Ye Wenjie (right) is the instigator of 3 Body Problem's story. (Image credit: Ed Miller/Netflix)

3 Body Problem’s story begins in 1960s China. Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng), a misanthropic astrophysics prodigy, is contacted by an alien race during her research into extraterrestrial life. Increasingly resentful towards her fellow humans after a series of personally traumatic events, Ye makes a fateful choice that reverberates across time and space: come and save us, because we can’t save ourselves.

Six decades later, detective Da Shi (Benedict Wong) investigates a series of brutal murders involving scientists worldwide. Tasked with cracking the case by a mysterious organization led by the enigmatic Thomas Wade (Liam Cunningham), Shi soon crosses paths with the Oxford Five, a group of brilliant researchers and close-knit friends who might have the answers to thwarting the alien invasion.

I’d already been sent all of Zine’s footage to show me how she presented Ye

Rosalind Chao, 3 Body Problem actor

As they race to stop said attack, though, there are others who want the aliens to succeed. The now-elderly Ye (Rosalind Chao) – alongside sybilline billionaire Mike Evans (played by Ben Schentzer in flashbacks and Jonathan Pryce in the present) – are among those leading the effort to help their would-be overlords achieve their objective.

A close up shot of the elderly Ye Wenjie sitting on a couch in Netflix's 3 Body Problem

Ye Wenjie continues to have a large role to play in 3 Body Problem's present day events. (Image credit: Ed Miller/Netflix)

Tseng and Chao (and Schetnzer and Pryce) aren’t the first actors to play the same character in a live-action project.

Father and son duo Kurt and Wyatt Russell are the most famous and recent example of this, with the pair starring as Lee Shaw in Godzilla TV spin-off Monarch: Legacy of Monsters on Apple TV Plus. Unlike the Russells, though, Tseng and Chao aren’t related. How, then, did they collaborate on bringing Ye to life and ensure that their performances plausibly portrayed the same person?

“Zine’s last day [of filming] was my first,” Chao explains. “We met for breakfast to discuss some finer details, but I’d already been sent all of Zine’s footage to show me how she presented Ye. I had a responsibility to turn Zine’s version into the mature Ye – with a little help from our wonderful makeup and hair crew, who added artificial wrinkles to my face and painted my hair gray.”

Saul struggles with the idea that he might fail

Jovan Adepo, 3 Body Problem actor

Portraying the younger Ye, whose life has been torturously upended on multiple occasions, Tseng did a lot of the emotional heavy lifting to lay the foundations for Chao’s older iteration, and set 3BP’s story in motion. With the Cultural Revolution – a turbulent and violent period in China’s recent past – used as a narrative fulcrum in both Cixin’s original texts and Netflix’s adaptation, Tseng admits it was “complicated” and often difficult to prepare for such an emotionally fraught journey.

“I definitely dug into the scientific research necessary to play her,” Tseng says. “But there was a greater focus on the books and scripts, so I could grasp Ye’s essence. She’s grown up being spoiled by science, and she’s so intelligent, but none of that prepares her for the life-threatening events she goes through. I had to ready myself to get into and maintain those ever-changing emotional states, which was hard work.”

Da Shi looks behind him with Thomas Wade in the background of the shot in Netflix's 3 Body Problem

Thomas Wade and Da Shi lead the fight to keep Earth safe. (Image credit: Ed Miller/Netflix)

Leading humanity’s defence are the aforementioned Wade and Shi. An Odd Couple-style pairing, the duo’s tension-fueled partnership – albeit one built on mutual respect – as well as their deadpan and gallows humor, add spicy melodrama and moments of levity to 3 Body Problem’s multifaceted melting pot.

“They work really well together, even if they are odd,” Cunningham says. “It’s also a little hilarious that these two idiosyncratic individuals are in charge of saving the human race. But, when they get going, they’re relentless – Benedict and I referred to each other’s character as a bear and rhinoceros on set because nothing gets in their way in their pursuit of achieving their goal of completing the mission. They’re always the right men for the job.”

“David, D.B, and Alex gave us so much room to play,” Wong adds. “As an actor, when you’re relaxed in certain playgrounds, you can throw curve balls at one another, which Liam and I did often. The funny thing is, when I was researching counter-terrorism operations for this role, there’s a lot of dark humor among staff members to lighten the mood, so we tried to incorporate as much of that into their working relationship as possible.”

The fundamental five

Jack and Jin examine one of the mysterious VR headsets in Netflix's 3 Body Problem series

Jack and Jin are part of 3 Body Problem's so-called Oxford Five. (Image credit: Netflix)

Like Tseng, those playing the Oxford Five – Jin (portrayed by Jess Hong), Auggie (Eiza Gonzalez), Saul (Jovan Adepo), Will (Alex Sharp), and Jack (John Bradley) – were instructed to research their character’s scientific backgrounds. That “foundational knowledge”, Hong says, was key to understanding the plot, and capturing the essence of their characters.

Of more importance, though, was the authentic, found-family nature of the group’s makeup. In 3BP, the quintet have been friends since their college days, so Hong and company had to ensure that the group’s dynamic, as well as the one-on-one relationships, were as authentic and deep-rooted as possible. 

It’s a little hilarious that these two... are in charge of saving the human race

Liam Cunningham, 3 Body Problem actor

“What was most helpful was talking to real scientists, such as our physics consultant Matt Kinsey and his two students,” Hong reveals. “They took Jovan and I around Oxford University for a day, and we got to see what their day-to-day life was like. Yes, they’re physicists, but that’s not who they are. They’re real people who go to the pub for a beer after a long working day, go rowing, and have relationships and heartbreaks. All of that helped to make sense of our characters and how, outside of work, they communicate and have fun like the rest of us.”

Will and Jin share a tender moment while sat on a British beach in Netflix's 3 Body Problem TV show

There's a "will they, won't they?" vibe to Will and Jin's dynamic in 3 Body Problem. (Image credit: Netflix)

That communication isn’t always verbal, either. As with any group of people who share a close personal and working relationship, the Oxford Five are able to convey their thoughts and feelings without uttering a word. Nowhere is this more evident than the friendship between Will, a reserved underachieving graduate-turned-physics teacher, and Jack, a loud-mouthed scholar who used his degree to create a multi-million-pound snacks empire.

“They have this great verbal rapport,” Bradley says. “But their relationship doesn’t need to be explicitly spoken about; it’s just there. It’s interesting that it’s their differences, not what they have in common, that makes them care for and complete each other. Take Will’s sensitivity, emotional intelligence, and heart, and combine them with Jack’s confidence and self-assertiveness, and they balance out each other’s shortcomings like all great friendships do.”

Auggie is the emotional compass of the show

Eiza Gonzalez, 3 Body Problem actor

“On-screen chemistry is so important,” Downing adds. “It’s always exciting and apprehensive to meet your fellow actors, but John and I bonded within 45 seconds of meeting. It’s a treat when you can take that relationship off-camera into a project and use that energy to develop an on-screen friendship.” 

Saul and Auggie look shocked as they stare at the night sky in 3 Body Problem on Netflix

Saul and Auggie's character arcs bookend Netflix's adaptation of Liu Cixin's best-selling novels. (Image credit: Ed Miller/Netflix)

Auggie and Saul, who bookend 3 Body Problem’s present-day storyline, are just as integral to the show’s emotions-laced beating heart. Auggie is the first Oxford Five member to get drawn into – largely against her own will – 3BP’s high-stakes, existential crisis-inducing plot. In contrast, Saul’s importance to the story takes longer to become apparent, but his arc is nonetheless vital to the main narrative and subplots that transpire in an ambitious, mind-melting Netflix sci-fi show that demands your attention.

“It was incredibly challenging to play Auggie,” Gonzalez muses. “She goes through so much, and I felt a lot of pressure because she is the emotional compass of the show. Auggie is constantly asking the audience to emotionally care about these characters and the themes within the story. There’s lots going on, but Auggie always brings you back to earth and makes you recognize ‘Hey, we’re human. We mess up and we struggle, but ultimately we keep going and make the right decisions in the end.’”

It’s their differences, not what they have in common, that makes them... complete each other

John Bradley, 3 Body Problem actor

“Saul’s journey is one of having responsibility thrust upon him,” Adepo adds. “He has a natural desire to help his friends, but he also has an inherent fear of failure. When he’s asked to rise to the occasion, Saul struggles with the idea that he might fail to do so. I think everyone can relate to that, so he feels the best way to support his friends is to be there for them and not chase his own aspirations.” 

Netflix’s 3 Body Problem is a slick but volatile series rooted in mind-boggling scientific theories, but at its heart is a deeply resonant tale about the human condition. For all of its enterprising and genre-bending scope – it’s a sci-fi epic, virtual-reality horror, and mystery thriller rolled into one – it’s a show that shines brightest when it leans into its intimacy-driven narratives and empathy-inducing themes. You might be drawn in by its breathtaking and cryptic plot, but you’ll stick around for, and engage with, its multidimensional cast of characters and the very relatable problems they contend with. 

“Call me crazy, I really don’t see this as a traditional sci-fi series,” Chao sums up. “It’s a mystery. It’s a love story. There’s historical drama and familial dysfunction. This show falls under the umbrella of sci-fi, but it’s been taken outside of those boundaries and expanded upon. I think that’s the show’s biggest draw.”

“We force the audience to quickly engage with the story we’re telling and characters caught in the crossfire,” Gonzalez adds. “We immediately ask them to jump on this wild ride but, once they’re invested, it’s an emotional rollercoaster that I don’t think a lot of people will have seen before.”

3 Body Problem exclusively launches in full on Netflix on Thursday, March 21.

Senior Entertainment Reporter

As TechRadar's senior entertainment reporter, Tom covers all of the latest movies, TV shows, and streaming service news that you need to know about. You'll regularly find him writing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, Netflix, Prime Video, Disney Plus, and many other topics of interest.

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