Spoiler warning for 3 Body Problem.

A member of the Red Guard lethally strikes a professor with a belt as the Cultural Revolution rages through 1960s China. An Oxford researcher laments the shutdown of the university’s particle accelerator after it seemingly defied established laws of physics. A detective in London examines the unusual death of a scientist who had scrawled a countdown in his blood over the walls. Despite having seemingly no similarities between them, these three scenes open Netflix’s latest smash-hit, 3 Body Problem (2024), and they make for a phenomenal introduction to a series that has enchanted millions.

Based on Liu Cixin’s novel, 3 Body Problem tells the complex story of a group of scientists looking to solve a series of mysteries afflicting the global scientific community. Rather than opt for a typical episodic structure, the show boldly chooses to weave multiple narratives together, allowing them to unfold and interact simultaneously. Most shows would buckle under the pressure of adequately telling a story split into so many parts. Yet, 3 Body Problem almost perfectly juggles its various plotlines, resulting in a binge-worthy eight-episode drama that innovates on classic science fiction themes.

Perhaps what will draw most viewers in is the mosaic of conundrums that suggest the entire study of science is falling apart. The series incorporates myriad subjects on the cutting edge of science, ranging from particle physics to virtual reality; the show evokes predecessors like Black Mirror (2011-present) in exploring technology’s potential to harm rather than do good, posing questions equal parts philosophical and polemical. For the first few episodes, these puzzles simmer in the viewer’s mind, allowing them to spin elaborate theories as they watch.

Easily the most perplexing problem is the literal and figurative death spiral the global scientific community is experiencing at the series’s start. On top of the apparent degradation of the laws of nature, scientists themselves are inexplicably dropping like flies. In fact, the troubling death of researcher Vera Ye (Vedette Lim) is what brings together the show’s central crew, her former assistants at Oxford. 

We find that, though brought together by this tragedy, all are encountering their own enigmas. Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo) lost his job after his particle accelerator inexplicably began producing nonsensical data. Augustina “Auggie” Salazar (Eiza González) begins seeing an ominous countdown visible only to her, threatening her to halt her nanofiber research lest it reach zero. Lastly, Jin Cheng (Jess Hong) discovers a futuristic gaming headset capable of creating immersive virtual reality simulations far beyond current technological capabilities. Though these oddities seem completely unrelated at the onset, there is an ever-present inkling that they are merely symptoms of a bigger picture. That nagging feeling keeps viewers enthralled as they attempt to unravel the thriller.

By the fourth episode, the pieces start to fall into place—and the answer lies beyond the stars. Causing this chaos is an intelligent alien species known as the San-Ti who have amassed a cult on Earth to help them travel to and rule over humanity as their benevolent overlords. Using advanced alien technology, the cult has been sabotaging the Earth’s scientific community in order to remain hidden and prevent humans from developing any defense against the outer-world invaders. 

Admittedly, the alien explanation may not seem that creative, but 3 Body Problem carves out its own niche by avoiding the “little green men” cliches that plague most extraterrestrial invasion media. For one, we never see what the San-Ti look like; they communicate with humans only through AI projections. Their method of warfare is also mental rather than physical—instead of arbitrarily destroying monuments like in Independence Day (1996), the San-Ti attack humanity’s knowledge and capability to resist, influencing humans to halt their own scientific progress. In the current season, the audience is not watching the actual invasion but the prologue—a looming apocalypse, rather than an actively unfolding one. 

By the fifth episode, the show transitions from sci-fi mystery to sci-fi disaster as the San-Ti demonstrate their awesome power by projecting the phrase “YOU ARE BUGS” across every screen on Earth simultaneously. With hope for peace dashed, the protagonists attempt to produce a plan to fend off the invasion amid international crisis. Though some momentum is lost with the transition, the new storyline elevates the sense of tension and dread that had only been teased earlier. The serene terror of the San-Ti and their perceived omnipotence makes for a truly menacing antagonist and villain for seasons to (hopefully) come.

Thematically, 3 Body Problem flirts with concepts of technological advancement and the ethics of scientific progress. In the show, the British government exploits cutting-edge technology, global resources, and innocent lives to advance its mission to discover and defeat its alien enemy. Loss of life is dismissed in the name of the “greater good,” posing troubling questions about whether the ends justify the means. It’s no coincidence the first scene of the season retells how China’s Cultural Revolution justified the brutalization and deaths of Chinese scholars for similar reasons. Quite poetically, this event sets the main plot in motion, as Ye Wenjie (Rosalind Chao/Zine Tseng), daughter of a slain Chinese professor, becomes the first person to contact the San-Ti in the 1960s. Ye’s loss fosters her cynicism over humanity’s ability to govern itself and the Earth, leading to her fateful decision to contact the San-Ti in a cry for help. Both then and now, humanity’s present desire for advancement has doomed future generations to an existential threat—a not-so-subtle metaphor for the numerous challenges our world faces today.

From a narrative, stylistic, and thematic perspective, 3 Body Problem takes on a lot. Scenes shift dramatically between characters, settings, and genres, demanding your undivided attention to follow along. Yet, those who choose to fully engross themselves will quickly find themselves obsessed with the masterfully told story and nuanced discussion of scientific progress in the modern world. The ambiguous ending of Season 1 opens the door for future seasons to go in multiple different directions, and with positive reception from fans and critics alike, 3 Body Problem will hopefully be making a rapid return to our screens.

Zachary Warren
Zach is the Halftime Leisure Editor and a junior in the College majoring in Government and History. He likes horror movies, board games, and if you see him late at night, he might do a little jig for you.

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