Given the massive, barn-burning success of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, it can seem like a fool (of a Took!)’s errand to try to replicate that success, much less on the small screen. (Hell, Jackson himself tried to adapt The Hobbit into a similarly sprawling trio of films, to much less success.) And yet, Prime Video is committed to doing just that with “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” a five-season gambit they’ve reportedly spent a whopping $1 billion developing for the streaming service, and whose first two episodes drop this Friday.
It’s a series that wants dearly to set itself apart as a fresh take on the material, right down to setting itself an entire age before the adventures of Frodo Baggins and his Fellowship. But it also does everything it can to stir our nostalgia for the Jackson films, from costume to music to overall design, which can occasionally make it like a store-brand version of the same. And yet, for all the “Game of Thrones”-lite feel, its lush production design and the promise of five seasons to tell its story makes me think there’s potential in this adventure—even if we can’t see it yet.
Much like another big-budget fantasy spinoff that just came out, “The Rings of Power” concerns itself with the affairs of its iconic sword-and-sorcery world hundreds of years before the adventures we know. Where Sauron’s destruction came in the Third Age, this show takes place in the Second, an eon after the Elves left their luminous land of Valinor to spread their empire to a new continent called—you guessed it—Middle-earth. There they waged a centuries-long war with the evil Morgoth, whose defeat left orcs and a mysterious general named Sauron behind.
“The Rings of Power” takes place in this tenuous peace, as the world struggles to pull itself back together after devastating conflict. And in so doing, show developers J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay work to fill in the worldbuilding blanks between the very beginning of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world and the legends to follow, taking inspiration from the appendices to the original books, The Silmarillion, and various bits of lore stuffed in the margins of Tolkien’s classic texts.
While this takes place centuries before the original books, a few familiar faces remain. We see younger versions of Elrond (Robert Aramayo, “Game of Thrones”), now an intellectually curious politician serving under King Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker). And of course, there’s Galadriel (“Saint Maud”’s Morfydd Clark), an elven warrior consumed by vengeance against Sauron for killing her brother. Both turn in fine performances—Aramayo’s gentle, lantern-jawed face is an exciting starting point to lead us to Hugo Weaving’s calcified administrator in the Jackson films, and Clark’s wily warrior still feels like Cate Blanchett even as her silver-plated armor evokes “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” as much as Galadriel. (We may even see other recognizable names, though they’re hardly revealed as such in the first pair of eps.)
“The Rings of Power”’s gargantuan budget and similarly-bloated cast let us peek into the other early corners of Middle-earth, as well. We see Hobbits in the Shire, but they’re not quite Hobbits yet (they’re called ‘harfoots’ here), and they don’t quite see the Shire. But the same curiosity and innocence we saw in Frodo Baggins exists, especially in the wide, expressive eyes of Nori (Markella Kavenagh), who similarly yearns for adventure. The dwarves continue to build their underground fortunes, as King Durin III (Peter Mullan) and his son, Durin IV (Owain Arthur), contemplate new entreaties from the elves. And far off in the lands of men, orcs and goblin-men make themselves known to impoverished humans (like Tyroe Muhafidin’s young Theo) and elf (Ismael Cruz Córdova’s archer Arondir) alike.
There’s too much plot material to cover even in the first two episodes, and it’s just as well I don’t try—publicity materials encourage us to “keep [the series] special for the fans.” But I can say that it looks gorgeous, especially within the confines of streaming television. While it suffers from some instances of flat TV lighting, and some of the green-screen effects don’t instill the same sense of awe as the Jackson films, there are some jaw-dropping vistas and elegantly designed creature effects to behold.
But you can throw all the CGI money in the world at a series, and it won’t make it more quickly-paced or its characters more compelling. That’s “The Ring of Power”’s major failing in its early go, as its first episode functions as a somewhat dry, derivative prelude, filled with endless scenes of politicking and elves droning on against green screens or elegantly-furnished conference rooms. It’s hardly the most exciting beginning to the series, with a frustrating amount of place-setting and more two-line characters than you can shake a palantír at.
Fortunately, episode two picks things up considerably, with some clearer stakes for Elrond’s arc throughout the season, and more time spent with the dwarves and harfoots of the realm—easily the more charismatic species of Middle-earth. We also get the occasional smattering of action to break up all the politicking, and it’s well-conceptualized, from Galadriel using a sword as a trampoline to kill a troll to a decidedly “Evil Dead”-ish encounter with a goblin in a rural cabin.
Really, what hobbles “The Rings of Power” is its teasingly derivative design that evokes Jackson’s trilogy while also asserting itself as something entirely new. The costumes pay homage to Ngila Dickson’s lush outfits for the original films, right down to Sauron’s spiked helmet; Bear McCreary’s classical score feels appropriately big, but doesn’t stand out with the same hummable zeal as Howard Shore’s. (Shore even contributes the title theme, as if the comparisons weren’t obvious enough.) Payne and McKay want to have their cake and eat it too, styling this as a direct precursor to the films that generations of movie fans have come to love without pronouncing it pure canon. I’d have preferred a wholly new conceptualization of Middle-earth, rather than trying to ride the dragon-tails of its inspirations.
While these first two hours read as a little dry, there’s plenty of promise in the robust world of “The Rings of Power”—hopefully, enough to overcome the stiffness of its prologue. It almost feels unfair to judge a series by what is, conservatively, 1/15th of its prospective runtime. Tolkien’s world is vast, filled with reams of history and dozens of characters, all clamoring to save their little corner of this fantastical land. With all this mythical place-setting out of the way, we’ll just have to see what Payne and McKay do with the time (and small fortune) that is given to them.
First two episodes screened for review. Premieres September 2nd on Prime Video.