Foundation sets the stage for a sweeping sci-fi epic [Apple TV+ review]

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Jared Harris in Foundation
When you see Jared Harris cast in a key role, it's a sure sign your TV show is on the right track.
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV+’s big, expensive sci-fi gamble is finally ready to cash in its bets. After years of production, Foundation — a series based on the work of Isaac Asimov and shepherded by the man who helped turn American culture into a superhero factory — is now streaming.

This very impressive sci-fi show will now have to compete in the attention economy. Can it live up to the hype?

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Foundation review: Season 1 opener

If you read Asimov’s Foundation books, you know the basic setup. Gaal Dornick (played by Lou Llobell) was saved from certain death as a child when she fled her homeland to go study before it was destroyed. She spent the intervening decade learning arcane mathematical principals and keeping her head down, trying not to stand out in a world of ruthless efficiency.

One day, however, she wins a contest by solving a fabled uncertainty principle — an equation that stumped brilliant minds for years. The prize for her cunning is to meet the most famous mathematician in the galaxy, Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), on the planet Trantor.

Trantor is something like the capital of the galaxy. It is home to the head of the Foundation, the empire that rules over every planet and star. Its current head is a family of clones, Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann), Brother Day (Lee Pace) and Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton). They have been repatriating the throne for generations to keep the same genes on the seat of power.

Trantor is also home to a very impressive galactic highway called the Star Bridge, which connects a space station to the rest of the universe several thousand stories above the ground.

Gaal meets her mathematical hero, Hari

Gaal is impressed by the sights and sounds of Trantor, but she’s naturally even more anxious to meet her idol. Her anxiety changes character quite abruptly, however, when Hari reveals that by solving the equation, she’s proven herself the only other mind in the galaxy capable of checking the math on his latest work. He accidentally predicted the fall of the Foundation in a few thousand years — and they’re going to arrest him for doing so.

Gaal is thus faced with a choice: Check Hari’s math, publicly say it’s wrong (proving there’s nothing at all wrong with the way the Foundation runs the galaxy) or say that he’s right and risk execution along with him. The thing that saves them more than Gaal’s testimony is that terrorists suicide-bomb the Star Bridge, proving Hari was right that things at least seem to be heading for a fall. The incident moves Brother Day to shrewdly suggest something other than executing a prophet whose latest prediction came true right at a time when the eyes of the world are on him.

Foundation doesn’t explicitly tell us the outcome of this decision. But we do know that 35 years in the future, a woman named Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) discovers something on the planet Terminus that might change the future even more than any terrorist action.

Don’t overthink the big stick

When Apple TV+ launched in 2019, Foundation was somewhere deep on the release calendar. We saw images, and eventually a teaser trailer, but it took something like two years for the series to actually arrive Thursday. (That’s a day early, as it turns out.)

The production team clearly took its time getting every effects shot correct, and for that they should be commended. It’s quite something to make the impossible space worlds dreamed up by sci-fi authors seem truly tactile. And in Foundation, every surface, wall and skyline looks like the real thing.

Of course, that’s not quite the same thing as always looking interesting. The show is frequently beautiful. But the palette rests overmuch in a murky zone of oranges and blacks, quite indistinguishable from so much other modern TV science fiction. Foundation seems like an attempt to create something in the vein of Disney+ hit The Mandolorian or Amazon Prime Video’s The Expanse. Judging by the first two episodes, Foundation is at least as good as the latter — and leagues better than the former.

Bringing Asimov’s Foundation to the screen

By now, Asimov’s best ideas have been gutted by decades of genre writers, both lazy and skilled. You’ll notice the shape of the pilot episode (“young girl tested by zealous hardliners”) feels an awful lot like Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. The idea of empirical breeding programs and warring planets will bring Frank Herbert’s Dune to mind. And the idea of their being an arcane branch of science that the government is wary to put much stock in will have you hearing Natalie Portman’s unfortunate accent in The Phantom Menace.

I like when new adaptations of, or homages to, older works keep the antique feeling of those source materials alive. Ridley Scott’s Raised by Wolves serves as a good example. No one on that show thought for a moment how an audience reared on modern sci-fi would react to a true product of a brain reared on Michael Moorcock, Dr. Who, Lawrence Gordon Clark and, of course, Asimov.

Of psychohistory and sci-fi adaptations

Foundation doesn’t prove as fearless about its antique roots. But in keeping the character of psychohistory alive (mathematics as a bulwark against religion, or at any rate a worthy twin), you can see Asimov with his sideburns and his new age techno-humanism in the great big towering storylines anyway. They’ve just been filtered through the aggressively middlebrow vision of showrunners David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) and Josh Friedman (Emerald City).

Friedman has done some interesting work in his time. But you’d be hard-pressed to locate anything as concrete as a sensibility from his shows, beyond a sort of desire to build great big worlds out of existing IP. He wrote the movie The Black Dahlia, which ranks as nobody’s favorite adapted screenplay, though I confess it’s among my favorite Brian De Palma movies.

Goyer is more troublesome. Having written both the exciting and edgy Blade and Christopher Nolan’s baggy and self-important Batman movies, and helping ensure the enduring monopoly of DC and Marvel comics at the U.S. box office, he was then given free reign to do whatever he wanted. This despite his having directed the abysmal likes of Blade: Trinity and The Unborn.

I can’t fully bring myself to write off Goyer because he seems to want to make better films than he frequently produces. Plus, once upon a time he wrote the excellent Dark City, one of the great out-of-nowhere science fiction movies made during my lifetime. (That’s the kind of thing Asimov probably would have liked.)

Keep it simple, showrunners

The key here is simplicity. Foundation’s writers reduced the whole of Asimov’s seven-novel series into something you can understand week to week. You might need to rewind sometimes if you want to make sure you caught every single nuance of what every scene portends for Hari Seldon’s philosophy and Gaal’s future. But you’ll be fine if you miss a point here or there.

Goyer and his writers know they’re not making Raised by Wolves. (Goyer frankly doesn’t have anything with that much personality in him anymore.) So they make it very easy to go with the flow. It also helps to have Pace and Harris — two veterans of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which is as good as mainstream American political cinema gets — matching wits at the heart of the show. That is always good value.

The little things

Foundation review: The Apple TV+ sci-fi series takes viewers to a new reality.
The Apple TV+ sci-fi series takes viewers to a new reality.
Photo: Apple TV+

Harris and Pace are the best individual elements on the show. No one does lordly voluptuousness like Pace, and he gives it all he’s got under the oversized robes and mathematically precise body language. He’d make a great Hannibal Lecter-style serial killer.

Harris, meanwhile, is one of the most interesting actors in English-language cinema, a perfect fusion of the old-world concentration and character of Richard Burton, the silky, feline nattering of Peter O’Toole, and the raw, edgy forcefulness of his father, Richard Harris. He’s simply the best casting choice a series can make. So Foundation is off to the races in a few very important ways.

Llobel’s Gaal Dornick seems entirely too pretty and unflappable to quite sell “outcast refugee math geek,” but she does OK. I do wish the generation of actors currently getting all the roles weren’t all so desperately pulchritudinous in exactly the same way, though.

Tom Holland, Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Brittany O’Grady, Jack Kilmer, Margaret Qualley, Joe Keery … pick your young starlet, they’re either rich, pretty or both. And it makes rooting for them very, very boring. Their acting styles all unfortunately lack the spark we used to see in upstart actors. Albert Finney, Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn … our somebodies used to scare us with their talent. That doesn’t really happen anymore.

Beautiful, engaging and … ordinary?

Indeed, the sort of featureless-ness of Llobel’s performance (and of her romantic interest, played by Alfred Enoch from the Harry Potter movies) hints at Foundation’s biggest drawback.

For all of its gorgeous sights and sounds, for every interesting performance, for every nagging idea, the show is rather too pretty and formless. Apple TV+ hired a raft of TV directors (and Rupert Sanders, a nothing with experience moving giant blue-screen sets) to just keep things moving and not linger on anything for too long.

Foundation is a show that’s routinely very cool, very engaging and very beautiful, but it still feels like ordinary televisual storytelling. This much money, this much time … I hoped for something a little more radical.

Watch Foundation on Apple TV+

The first two episodes of Foundation premiered on September 23 on Apple TV+. New episodes arrive on Fridays.

Rated: TV-14

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.