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'3 Body Problem' presents a fascinating take on an alien invasion story

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An interpretation of a celebrated Chinese science-fiction novel, "Remembrance Of Earth's Past," debuts tomorrow on Netflix. The series is called "3 Body Problem." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans gives us his impressions of this new take on an alien invasion story.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "3 Body Problem" actually starts with two problems - first, a string of unexplained suicides by scientists where they write numbers on the wall in their own blood. These deaths are investigated by two men, one of whom is played by Marvel movie alum Benedict Wong.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "3 BODY PROBLEM")

BENEDICT WONG: (As Da Shi) Another countdown.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) One of the betting sites had him pegged as a favorite for the next Nobel Prize in physics.

WONG: (As Da Shi) You can bet on that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You can bet on anything, boss.

DEGGANS: That corpse was actually missing his eyes.

The other problem is that science seems to have stopped working, as researchers report results from experiments in supercolliders that make no sense. Jovan Adepo plays a scientist puzzling over what's happened with a colleague.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "3 BODY PROBLEM")

JOVAN ADEPO: (As Saul Durand) You told us it doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is - if it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I think that was Feynman, but yeah.

ADEPO: (As Saul Durand) According to the experiments, all of our theories are wrong. All of the physics of the past 60 years is wrong. Science is broken.

DEGGANS: If you're sensing that "3 Body Problem" takes its time in building a narrative, then you've discovered a third problem. It takes a while to gather steam. You're three episodes in before the narrative really gets arresting, and there's a bit of filler in the early episodes. This may not be a surprise, given two of the Netflix series' three creators are David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, former showrunners of HBO's "Game Of Thrones," a program which could have its own problems with narrative flow. Still, once "3 Body Problem" gets going, it reveals a unique kind of invasion attacking the world's scientists, who start seeing a bizarre countdown appear in their vision no one else can perceive. Eiza Gonzalez is one of those scientists who thinks she's going crazy until she gets a visit from a very mysterious woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "3 BODY PROBLEM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) The Lord has a better way.

EIZA GONZALEZ: (As Auggie Salazar) Listen, you seem like a very nice person. I'm just not interested, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) How far as it got - the countdown? How much time do you have left? It's easy to make it stop. You put an end to your work. You shut down the lab. Simple.

DEGGANS: Simple? Well, I'm not so sure about that. This show is based on a 2008 novel by Chinese engineer and science fiction writer Liu Cixin, which became a book series that won praise from big names like Barack Obama. It popularized Chinese science-fiction internationally, and it makes compelling observations about the nature of society and technological progress, some of which find their way into the TV show. It kind of makes sense that Netflix, which has found success funneling audiences to TV shows from South Korea, Latin America and all over the world, would crack this sprawling narrative. The story reaches back to a young Chinese scientist watching an angry mob during China's Cultural Revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "3 BODY PROBLEM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, non-English language spoken).

DEGGANS: They beat her father to death, who's also a scientist, for refusing to recant the Big Bang theory of the universe's beginnings.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "3 BODY PROBLEM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, shouting) Ah.

DEGGANS: "3 Body Problem" shows that scientist, fueled by hate and loss, making a decision which puts the entire planet at risk. The TV show amps up the thriller elements from the books to pose a compelling challenge - how to fight an alien enemy targeting the world's scientific progress. The story arcs across many genres, combining an ambitious narrative with ideas rooted in actual science and eye-popping visual effects to create a truly impressive tale. Just remember to be patient early on as it sets the stage. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI'S "MAIN TITLE (FROM THE NETFLIX SERIES "3 BODY PROBLEM")" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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