tv review

Foundation Is a Very Beautiful Sci-Fi Screensaver

Photo: Apple TV+

Sometimes, when I’ve finished watching something and I’m just sitting, processing, not yet ready to move onto my next task, my Apple TV goes into screensaver mode. There’s a large library of very beautiful videos, most of them taken from a slight or extreme remove: a camera following a pod of dolphins, drone footage of a busy California pier or marina in Dubai, or one of my favorites, rice paddies in China. All of them, even the more close-up, underwater-themed ones, share a feeling of distance and abstraction, like watching the world as a gorgeous high-def system of patterns divorced from any one narrative or character. They are great screensavers — mesmerizing, visually rich, captivating while also functionally empty — and I am sincere when I say that I love them. I love them in the same way I have, at various points in my life, loved Magic Eye posters, coloring books, things arranged in rainbow order, and those boxes full of blunted pins you press your hand against and then flip over to see the three-dimensional image.

The experience of watching Foundation, the new big-budget science-fiction adaptation premiering today on Apple TV+, is pretty close to the frictionless pleasure of leaning back and leaving your Apple TV on screensaver mode. It is stunning to look at — arresting, even. It’s a colorful kaleidoscope of alien planets and jewel-tone costumes sliding quickly from one time, one planet, to somewhere totally different (but just as sumptuous). And yes, sure, there’s a story. There are characters. “Things” definitely do “happen.”

But Isaac Asimov’s original novel is usually described as “unfilmable” because it’s primarily focused on individual action as a necessary, but not especially interesting, conduit for the thing it actually cares about: sweeping social collapse and reconstruction. Foundation the series tries to resist that, to fight its source text’s structure by creating characters and almost defiantly plunking them down in those beautiful galactic spaces. It is possible to watch Foundation for those characters, and to care about what happens to them: Lee Pace is the radiant Brother Day, one of a triumvirate of clone-emperors that rule over the enormous, unchanging civilization; Jared Harris is Hari Seldon, a mathematician-revolutionary who predicts the fall of the empire. There’s a young, uncanny genius-type outlier character, Gaal Dornick (played by Lou Llobell) and another resilient outer-world survival character, Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey). Dornick and the clone-emperors are creations for the TV series, and both are attempts to shoehorn some straightforward protagonist/antagonist motivation into the story.

It works, a bit. As the evil emperor, Lee Pace makes an excellent figurehead. He plays it so utterly straight, just seething cold fury in a goofy, bright-blue breastplate-chin-guard thing, and it’s not hard to buy Brother Day’s stern emptiness. Likewise, Jared Harris leans into the wise enigmatic visionary thing, and because he’s Jared Harris, no one will be surprised when things don’t turn out all that well for Hari Seldon. In individual scenes, characters like Dornick and Hardin work, too. Briefly, you get looped into their motivations, the people they have crushes on, the goals they’re striving for. But Foundation, by design, does not let you stay in those scenes for long. Stories glide across decades too quickly. Characters get shuttled off into stasis pods and hang out at the edges of the universe, apparently lost forever, until inevitably it turns out they are just fine, actually: How are you? And what’s happened in the last 40 years? 

As a result, not much about Foundation sticks, either emotionally or narratively. There are cause-and-effect relationships between one event and another, but they’re stretched across long-attenuated frames, spun out over distances that are short enough to roughly remember there was a relationship there, but too long for that relationship to retain any urgency or heft. There are a few instances where big twists or reunions do have a sense of exciting development, but their infrequency only makes it clear how little you care about the other stuff. Salvor Hardin has a love interest, for instance, who Foundation insists matters as a character, and who returns more than once to give Hardin some emotional oomph. Never once does he make the slightest dent in the story’s larger field of gravity. I watched all ten episodes of the season, and if you were to put that character in front of me in a lineup, there is absolutely no way I could identify him with any certainty.

As a screensaver, though? As a thing you put on in front of your eyes and watch drift by, brilliantly colored and painstakingly rendered? You really can’t beat it. Posters and book covers of fantasy lands have long been more romantic and artful than what practical effects or CGI could really live up to. Give me a cheap, pulpy sci-fi book cover with wild green mountains and three purple moons hanging low in the sky over the fairly stark stuff that tends to show up in genre screen productions any day. Not Foundation, though. Every frame lives up to the outrageous vision of mid-century grand-scale science-fiction otherworldliness. There’s a mid-season plot twist that hinges on a hunting scene in a lush extraterrestrial jungle, and even if Foundation never managed to make any of its characters especially convincing, I’d have been more than happy to just hang out in that wild green place with its strange red lizard birds for hours on end.

Foundation, like Amazon’s Wheel of Time and its Lord of the Rings prequel, or like Apple’s other big sci-fi fall venture Invasion, seems like a transparent bid to capitalize on the Game of Thrones audience. That series was the biggest thing on TV; it must follow that there’s now a prime audience for other enormous, muscular adaptations of genre classics with, I don’t know, spaceships or emperors or something. It’s tough to imagine Foundation living up to that level of cultural inescapability, especially when I can’t even remember Salvor Hardin’s boyfriend’s name. Nevertheless, it clearly achieves the thing it seems like it most set out to do: be a more engaging alternative to the free Apple TV screensaver, or at least engaging enough to justify the cost of a subscription.

Foundation Is a Very Beautiful Sci-Fi Screensaver