Here’s the thing about the new Lord of the Rings show rings of strength: It takes you somewhere you’ve been before.
Among the many familiar items in the upcoming Prime Video series on September 2 is the Khazad-dm troll stronghold. If you’ve watched Peter Jackson’s classic Lord of the Rings trilogy, you’ve visited Khazad-dm as a terrifying tomb filled with skeletons, adorned with cobwebs and being watched by a very bad fire demon.
Now, long before Gandalf slipped off the edge of a shattered stone bridge, Khuzad Dom is a tumultuous kingdom where giant mirrors reflect light in its depths, vibrant greenery flourishes, and countless dwarves flourish. Two decades after Jackson first moved to Middle-earth, The Rings of Power offers something familiar, but revamped enough to make the visit worthwhile for established fans and novices to Tolkien.
This is the challenge for The Rings of Power. In the past 20 years, The Lord of the Rings trilogy has established itself in mainstream pop culture — memes about not being Just walking in Mordorto me Gollum’s impressions. Some have never left Middle-earth, but for others, it comes down to whether a return is wanted or justified.
To borrow a quote from Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Rings of Power appears to realize that her quest is on a knife edge. Judging from the examiners of Prime Video’s first and second episodes, The Rings of Power is steadily returning to Middle-earth, delivering all the things the originals have loved for many of us in those past several years: stunning vistas, latex prosthetics and even grueling dialogue bouts delivered. Occasionally to some point on the horizon.
Episodes of Power takes place in the second age of Middle-earth, thousands of years before Frodo and his friends ever thought of leaving the Shire. The series focuses on the formation of the infamous nine episodes, and the runaway villain ex-Sauron, who is causing havoc. Thanks to the longevity of the elves, Cladrill (played by Morvid Clark) and Elrond (Robert Aramayo) return as characters, accompanied by a group of elves, dwarves, men, and harvots (Hobbits’ ancestors are short), all of which experience the feeling of drowning in something evil, and the denial that accompanies that.
Rings of Power successfully balances the way it makes it accessible to newcomers, movie fans, and the more knowledge-intensive. (Although it remains to be seen how much liberties he takes with Tolkien’s work pisses off the hardest-of-public audience.) If Fëanor and his hammer or Aul and his beard mean nothing to you, this is totally survivable.
The series adopts the visual style of the films. The first two episodes alone offer a feast of sweeping shots over snowy mountains, open plains, and painfully gorgeous architecture. Rings of Power uses the same kind of tones that make the newly introduced Rivendell and Lindon shine gold, but the men’s worlds look a lot more grey.
The score also, this time composed by Bear McCreary in place of Howard Shore, covers familiar territory. Soaring choral pieces can be ethereal or threatening, depending on the scene.
And there are some flashbacks for sure, like opening with a prequel voiced by Galadriel, or a tense moment with some bubbles in a lake, but Rings of Power prevents itself from getting into the kind of tense fan service that can only cost it. Instead, these elements do a lot of effort in fixing the scenes in this complex story.
As for the new group of Middle-earth residents, although Cate Blanchett is hard to come by, Clarke makes a compelling pre-avatar who’s clear and ready for battle no matter who appeals to her to calm down. Entry with a snow elf is enough to turn her into a certified action hero. Dwarven Durin and his wife, Disa, provide some comic warmth and relief, unlike Gimli in the trilogy, which is a welcome breath, chromatically.
However, the big test for Rings of Power, however, is how well it paces itself while navigating at least four or five plot lines. In a way, a brave young Harfoot named Nuri who finds a mysterious giant in a smoke crater must be as intriguing as a romance of questionable chemistry between human Bronwen (Nazanin Boniadi) and Elf Arondir (Ismail Cruz Cordova) without expression. Hazard ends up with a work that looks, sounds, and feels as great as any on the big screen, but without the focused story that underpins it.
And of course, the string will also have to handle a file Familiar affair between prequels: The struggle between good and evil will not culminate in the kind of triumph that helped make LOTR a popular culture of comfort food in turbulent times. No matter how the show develops over the next five seasons, Sauron will be back.
When The Fellowship of the Rings came out in 2001, an era in which fantasy films could be good with a capital G. 10,000 imps gather outside Helms DeepThis was a whole new visual feat.
Twenty years later, audiences are accustomed to amazing fantasy worlds and battles on the big screen not only in films like Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, but also in TV shows like Game of Thrones, and now GOT’s prequel series, Dragon House.
With so many other universes to indulge in, it’s an open question whether throwing a billion dollars or so into adjusting book supplements over at least five seasons is enough to get deep into the heart of the LOTR fandom.
But for now, The Rings of Power is a cinematic trip to Middle-earth that will make you want to volunteer your ax by saying “Why not?”
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