The big, expensive sci-fi gambling Apple TV + is finally ready to cash in on its bets. After years of production, Foundation – a series based on the work of Isaac Asimov and run by a man who helped turn American culture into a superhero factory – is now airing.
This very impressive sci-fi show will now have to compete in the attention economy. Can it justify the hype?
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Foundation review: Opening of the first season
If you read Asimov’s Foundation books, you know the basic setup. Gaal Dornick (played by Lou Llobell) was saved from certain childhood death when she fled her homeland to go to study before she was destroyed. She spent the past decade learning secret mathematical principles and bowed her head, trying not to stand out in the world of relentless efficiency.
One day, however, he wins the competition by solving the fabled principle of uncertainty – an equation that has plagued brilliant minds for years. The reward for her cunning is to meet the most famous mathematician in the galaxy, Harry Seldon (Jared Harris), on the planet Trantor.
Trantor is something like the capital of the galaxy. It is the home of the head of the Foundation, the empire that rules 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 returning to the throne for generations to keep the same genes at the seat of power.
Trantor is also home to a very impressive galactic highway called the Star Bridge, which connects the space station with the rest of the universe several thousand floors above the ground.
Gaal meets his mathematical hero, Harry
Gaal is impressed by the scenes and sounds of Trantor, but naturally she is even more eager to meet her idol. Her anxiety changes character quite abruptly, however, when Harry discovers that by solving the equation she has proven to be the only other mind in the galaxy capable of checking math on his latest work. He accidentally predicted the fall of the Foundation in a few thousand years – and he will be arrested for it.
Gaal is therefore faced with a choice: check Harry’s math, publicly say it’s wrong (proving there’s nothing wrong with the way the Foundation manages the galaxy) or say he is right and risk execution along with him. What saves them more than Gaal’s testimony is that terrorists suicide bombed Star Bridge, proving that Harry was right that things were at least Seems like to go in the fall. The incident prompts Brother Dana to shrewdly suggest something other than the execution of a prophet whose last prediction came true just at a time when the eyes of the world were fixed on him.
Foundation it does not explicitly tell us about the outcome of this decision. But we know that 35 years into the future a woman named Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) is discovering something on the planet Terminus that could change the future even more than any terrorist action.
Don’t think too much about the big stick
When Apple TV + was introduced in 2019. Foundation was somewhere deep in the release calendar. We saw the pictures and finally the teaser trailer, but it took about two years for the series to really arrive on Thursday. (That was the day before, it turned out.)
The production team obviously needed time to empty all the effects and that is why they should be praised. It’s something that makes the impossible space worlds dreamed of by science fiction authors that look really tactile. And inside Foundation, every surface, wall and horizon looks like the real thing.
Of course, this is not the same as always looking interesting. The show is often beautiful. But the palette rests too much in the dark zone of oranges and blacks, not much different from so many other modern TV science fiction. Foundation it seems like an attempt to create something in the style of a Disney + hit Mandoloriac or Amazon Prime Video The Expanse. Judging by the first two episodes, Foundation is at least as good as the latter – and leagues better than the former.
I bring Asimov Foundation to the screen
So far, Asimov’s best ideas have been destroyed by decades of writers of genres, both lazy and skilled. You will notice that the shape of the pilot episode (“a young girl tested by zealous stubborn people”) is terribly reminiscent of Philip Pullman Golden compass. The idea of empirical breeding programs and warring planets will be brought up by Frank Herbert Dune in mind. And the idea of them being a mysterious branch of science in which the government is careful to invest a lot of stockpiles will make you hear Natalie Portman’s unfortunate accent in A phantom threat.
I like it when new adaptations or homages to older works keep the ancient sense of original materials alive. Ridley Scott Raised by wolves serves as a good example. No one on that show thought for a moment how audiences raised on modern science fiction would react to the real brain product raised on Michael Moorcock, Dr. Who, Lawrence Gordon Clark and, of course, Asimov.
Psychohistorical and sci-fi adaptations
Foundation he does not prove fearless in regard to his ancient roots. But keeping the character of psychohistory alive (mathematics as a bulwark against religion, or in any case a worthy twin), you can see Asimov with the foundations and techno-humanism of the new age anyway. They have just been filtered through the aggressive vision of broker David S. Goyer (Batman begins, Dark Knight) and Josh Friedman (Emerald City).
Friedman did it some an interesting work in his time. But you would be hard pressed to locate anything as concrete as sensibility from his shows, beyond the kind of desire to build big big worlds from existing IP addresses. He wrote the film Black Dahlia, which ranks as no one’s favorite adapted screenplay, although I admit it is among my favorite films about Brian De Palma.
Goyer is even more problematic. Writing both excitingly and nervously Blade and Christopher Nolan baggy and self-sufficient Batman movies, and helping secure a permanent monopoly on DC and Marvel comics at U.S. movie theaters, then he was given the freedom to do whatever he wanted. This despite the fact that he directed abysses like Blade: Trinity i The Unborn.
I can’t completely force myself to write off Goyer because he does to want to make better films than he often produces. Besides, he wrote great once upon a time Dark City, one of the great science fiction films made out of nowhere during my life. (Asimov would probably like that.)
Keep it simple, leaders
The key here is simplicity. Foundation ‘The writers have reduced Asimovlje’s entire series of seven novels to something you can understand from week to week. You may sometimes have to rewind if you want to make sure you’ve captured every nuance of what each scene represents for Harry 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 don’t create Raised by wolves. (Goyer honestly has nothing left with so many personalities in him.) So they make it very easy to continue the flow. It also helps to have Pace and Harris – two veterans of Steven Spielberg Lincoln, which is as good as the main American political cinema achieves – a match in the heart of the play. It is always good value.
Harris and Pace are the best individual elements of the show. No one does lordly ambition like Pace, and he gives his best under huge robes and mathematically precise body language. He would be a great serial killer in the style of Hannibal Lecter.
Harris, meanwhile, is one of the most interesting actors in English-language cinema, a perfect fusion of the concentration and character of Richard Burton in the old world, the silky, feline entanglement of Peter O’Toole, and the raw, sharp strength of his father, Richard Harris. He is simply the best choice of actors the series can make. So Foundation goes to races in several very important ways.
Llobel’s Gaal Dornick looks too handsome and infallible to sell an “exiled refugee math nerd,” but she’s fine. I wish the generation of actors currently getting all the roles weren’t so desperately ridiculous in exactly the same way.
Tom Holland, Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Brittany O’Grady, Jack Kilmer, Margaret Qualley, Joe Keery … choose your young starlet, or they are rich, beautiful or both. And it makes cheering them very, very boring. Their acting styles unfortunately lack the spark we once saw in advanced actors. Albert Finney, Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn … our bodies scared us with their talent. That really doesn’t happen anymore.
Beautiful, attractive and ordinary?
Indeed, a kind of insignificance of Llobel’s performance (and her romantic interest, played by Alfred Enoch from Harry Potter movies) suggests Foundation ‘the biggest drawback.
For all its beautiful scenes and sounds, for every interesting performance, for every annoying idea, the show is too beautiful and shapeless. Apple TV + has hired a number of TV directors (and Rupert Sanders, nothing with experience in moving huge blue screens) to just keep things moving and not linger too long on anything.
Foundation is a show that is routine very cool, very interesting and very nice, but still feels like ordinary television storytelling. This much money, this much time … I was hoping for something a little more radical.
Watch Foundation on Apple TV +
The first two episodes of the series Foundation premiered Sept. 23 on Apple TV +. New episodes arrive on Friday.
Look at: Apple TV +
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of a long series of video essays The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He wrote for The Village Voice, Movie Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books i Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films and the author of more than 300 video essays that can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.
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