Foundation review: Apple’s slow-burn sci-fi epic thinks big, looks great

Lee Pace and Jared Harris are an emperor and a mathematician in Foundation on Apple TV Plus.

Apple TV Plus

It’s a great time for high-minded fantasy classics you haven’t read (or maybe you have, in which case you may be ambivalent about your favorite books coming to the screen). The much-vaunted Dune movie from Denis Villeneuve is in theaters and on HBO Max Oct. 22; Brave New World already came out; and Wheel of Time is still to come. But before that, Apple TV Plus brings Isaac Asimov’s weighty Foundation saga to the small screen.

Starring Lee Pace and Jared Harris, this glossy sci-fi epic hardly moves at the speed of light. Which means you might need to give it a chance beyond the first two episodes that stream Sept. 25 on Apple TV Plus, followed by a new weekly installment every Friday until the 10-episode season ends Nov. 17. 

Beginning as a series of short stories in 1942 and expanding to a lengthy series of novels, prequels and sequels, Foundation is a vast cosmic saga. So, of course, the show opens with a voiceover, followed by onscreen captions telling you the names of three planets in just the first eight minutes. It flashes back 35 years, then a flashback rewinds 400 years, then another goes 17 years forward. Look, there’s dense world-building that rewards viewers’ attention, and there’s presenting a story in a way that’s just confusing. Foundation is filled with interesting stuff and big ideas, but it could present them in a more accessible way.

Don’t worry though: If you can handle the million different houses of Game of Thrones you can handle this. And Foundation opens with a shot of a zooming landspeeder so Star Wars-esque it must surely be deliberate. It’s OK. This shot seems to say: You’re watching a space opera. You got this.

Foundation on Apple TV Plus visits many strange new worlds.

Apple TV Plus

There’s a lot to enjoy in Foundation. It looks great, for a start, with obvious thought put into differentiating itself from the familiar conventions of the sci-fi genre. The space travel, for example, is lengthy and dangerous and looks very different from Star Wars and Star Trek’s whooshing stars. Foundation is also pleasingly more colorful than most post-Thrones sci-fi — well, compared with the monochromatic gray ‘n’ beige Dune anyway. From its glitter-bomb opening titles to bold stripes of color across decor and costumes, to elegant starships framing glittering worlds, to atmospheric glowing lighting in every scene, Foundation is frequently a treat to look at.  

Foundation is still one of the many recent Thrones clones aimed squarely at adults. Like Peacock’s Brave New World, HBO Max’s Raised By Wolves, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Apple’s Jason Momoa-starring See, Foundation is a dense, serious drama with a large cast of poker-faced characters having a thoroughly awful time in a detailed but unsettling fantasy world. It’s filled with austere arguments, unstated agendas and silhouetted sex scenes, unfolding with a slow-burning ponderousness over its leisurely run of episodes.

Foundation is full of atmospheric cinematography.

Apple TV Plus

On the imperial world of Trantor, mathematician, martyr (and maybe murderer) Hari Selden realizes the galactic empire is dying. He’s played by Harris, star of Chernobyl, Mad Men and The Terror, so you know he’s got some gravitas. Selden has crunched the numbers and come up with a formula proving the interstellar status quo will crumble into savagery, which is obviously bad news for haughty emperor Cleon, played with graceful majesty by  Pace from Guardians of the Galaxy and Halt and Catch Fire.

Autocratic Cleon is minded to shoot the messenger and execute Hard before his doomsaying theories, dubbed psychohistory, infect the people. Junior mathematics prodigy Gaal, played by fresh-faced Lou Llobell, is unwittingly caught up in the affair, and next thing you know she’s on a starship to the very edge of the galaxy to establish a new colony based on Selden’s teachings. This Foundation could save the galaxy — if suicide bombers, a looming interplanetary war and an enigmatic monolith don’t get in the way.

Though Selden and Gaal are nominally the leads, Foundation struggles to present engaging characters to root for. The intergalactic cast means the series hops around just as you’re getting into each character, and not all of the characters are fleshed out enough to justify drawing you away from other stories. 

Compared with Dune’s psychic princelings, scheming space witches and fleshy oil barons, the characters of Foundation just aren’t that gripping (certainly to start with). The most intriguing sci-fi weirdness is the emperor Cleon, who’s actually three clones of the same ruler at different ages who form a ruling triumvirate of callow youth, overbearing adult and wizened, wise old man. Technically aspects of the same person, the simmering tension between them reflects how people change over the years — or, if you like, Freud’s concept of the juvenile id, rational ego and conscience-driven super-ego.

Like how I just dropped some Freud on you there? Yes, even if the show is a bit ponderous, it does at least have some big themes to ponder. A horrifying terrorist attack prompts a wounded empire to retaliate without worrying much if they’re going to war with the right people, the sort of Middle East allegory not a million desert miles from the subtext of Dune. 

Science and math are both revered and feared in a society afraid of the future. And most of all, it’s about legacy — your place in the foundations of the future. Whether cloned emperors or soothsaying mathematicians, everyone is desperate to know the future. In a thought-provoking and primally relatable way, everyone is dying to know if doom is all that awaits, if they’re powerless in the face of events measured on a cosmic scale, or if they even have a responsibility to the future at all.

Austere and slow-moving, Foundation may not boast characters that immediately grab you. But this stylish, serious series lays a solid foundation for an intriguing sci-fi diversion.

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