Note: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power premiers on Friday, September 1 on Amazon Prime Video. I was fortunate enough to attend a special fan screening where I saw the first two episodes in theaters. This will be a spoiler-free review of both episodes.
The events of the three Lord of the Rings films and the three Hobbit films take place during the Third Age of Middle-earth, the fantastical world created by J.R.R. Tolkien. The events of The Rings of Power, on the other hand, take place thousands of years before those stories, in the Second Age, long before Frodo and Sam journeyed to Mordor to destroy the one ring. While much was written about the Third Age by Tolkien, he laid out the major story beats of the Second Age in broad strokes, leaving just enough gaps for someone to come in and tell wholly new stories with new and familiar faces, blazing a new trail yet staying true to the world and mythology that was so meticulously built. The first two episodes of the series, which will run for five seasons, catch viewers up on what happened in the First Age and start to leave inklings of ideas of where this series, or at least this first season, might lead. There is a villain in hiding, those who refuse to believe he is gone, quests for power, lands without kings–all the things you would come to expect from a Tolkien adaptation.
For the purposes of this review, I’ll focus on the following four main areas: story, characters, visuals, and music.
The first episode falls prey to pilot-itis, meaning that it spends most of the hour runtime telling us things rather than showing. There is a ton of exposition that the show has to get through in the first episode, understandably, but it makes the episode drag a bit. There’s so much information coming at you, old characters, new characters, locations, plots, secrets; sometimes it is a bit much and it is difficult to find something to grasp on to. The whole episode felt like someone trying too hard, and failing, to capture the magic of Tolkien’s world and the films that came before the show.
The second episode, however, is where the show really shines. Now that we know the history of this version of Middle-earth and can take a beat to follow the characters we’ve met, neat little breadcrumbs are dropped, hinting at what is to come in future episodes. Sure, some of the story that starts to unfold is a bit of a retread of stories that the series has told before, but you can hardly blame the show for following a formula that is successful, albeit a bit familiar.
There is just so much lore that Tolkien baked into his world that each new piece of information that is presented has me wondering if it connects to what I already know and how it will play out in this particular show. The first two episodes did their job well: they introduced me to this version of the world, showed me new and familiar characters, and started to unfold the central storyline for this adaptation. And, because Tolkien only laid out this story in broad strokes, no one except the showrunners truly know what is going to happen next, which is an exciting prospect, particularly for this franchise.
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit feature some of the greatest characters ever created in literature and captured on film. Aragorn, Gandalf, Frodo, Bilbo, Gollum, Sauron – the list goes on and on of amazingly intricate and compelling characters that Tolkien created. And some of those characters have younger versions in The Rings of Power, particularly Galadriel (Morfydd Clark here, Cate Blanchett in the films) and Elrond (Robert Aramayo here, Hugo Weaving in the films). Thankfully, both actors do an admirable job adding to the complex tapestry of their respective characters without seeming like hollow imitations. Clark particularly does an amazing job, oscillating between the ethereal, other-worldliness of Galadriel and the intimidating, head strong war hero of her younger years. Aramayo is just as charming and intimidating as Weaving was in the films, but he too brings his own take, breathing new life into a character that one might have thought didn’t need new life breathed into prior to the show.
The new characters, however, are a bit of a mixed bag, at least right now. There are the star-crossed lovers Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova), an elf, and human healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), though we’ve seen this story play out in epic fashion on the big screen between Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings. There are hints that we could become invested in these characters over time, but it is more of a slow burn right now.
The standouts of the first two episodes, by far, have to be the dwarf prince, Durin IV (Owain Arthur) and his wife Disa (Sophia Nomvete), who seem like they were transported right off the page and out of the movies and placed into the show. Everything about them, from their look to their banter, is pitch perfect, and they are one of the reasons I left the theater feeling so excited about this series. The same can be said for two Harfoots (creatures who would eventually become Hobbits) – Nori (Markella Kavenagh) and Poppy (Megan Richards). They too seem quintessential Tolkien creations and made me feel right at home when they were on screen. Also shout out to Daniel Weyman’s “The Stranger”, who… well we all know who that is, right?
If the story was a bit of a mixed bag, with the slowness of the first episode bringing down the excellent second episode; and the characters are mostly great–the visuals is where this show truly shines. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies are known for their sweeping shots of stunning locales; thankfully, The Rings of Power is no different. Middle earth is brought back to life in absolutely gorgeous visuals that, at times, makes you feel as if you are watching a nature documentary and not a fantasy TV series. This is a good thing.
Another good thing is that the series seems to have learned from the mistakes of the three Hobbit films, in that they don’t over-rely on CGI visuals. Make no mistake, CGI is used in this series, but it is with the restraint of a younger Peter Jackson rather than the heavy-handed use of the older Peter Jackson. CGI is utilized here as a method to show things that cannot exist in real life, but only for that purpose. Amazing costumes and makeup work help bring these characters to life, and it feels authentic in a way The Hobbit trilogy never did. Hopefully, this trend continues.
Unfortunately, this is the area that is the weakest when it comes to The Rings of Power. For all that has been said about The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the standout achievement for me has always been the score of both trilogies. Composer Howard Shore did groundbreaking work for both sets of film, bringing the world and the characters to life in a way that the actors, set designers, costume makers and make up artists couldn’t do alone. The pieces written for all six films are equal parts nostalgic, beautiful, harrowing, terrifying, peaceful, frenetic–each individual piece perfectly highlights what is happening on screen. This is not so much the case for The Rings of Power.
Don’t get me wrong, composer Bear McCreary is very talented, but the pieces he wrote for the first two episodes just didn’t leave a mark. There is no “Concerning Hobbits” or “The Road Goes Ever On” here. Sure, the music fits in thematically with the previous trilogies, but there are no instant earworms. At least, not yet.
Though the first two episodes of Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power don’t hit a homerun right out the gate, there is a lot to love and a lot of promise for the series as a whole going forward. This looks to be visually and thematically a continuation of the films we have come to love, however it is adapting a story that only the most diehard of fans know, which is an exciting prospect. A bit slow to start and without a musical identity of its own, there is something here in these first two episodes that leaves me wanting to see more.
Rating: I would give episode 1 three stars and episode 2 four stars, for an average of 3.5 out of five stars.
Have you seen The Rings of Power? What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments or in our Discord.
Mark Pereira is a senior writer for Boss Rush Network. He loves all video games, but his top three favorites are Skyward Sword, Super Mario 3D World and Batman: Arkham Asylum. You can find him on Twitter where he’s usually talking about Nintendo, video games, movies, and TV shows.
Featured image source: Twinfinite