Don’t get me wrong: I’m as interested in re-experiencing the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents as the next guy with short-term memory loss, but I’m much more invested in the burgeoning “errata and appendices” approach to intellectual property than any down-the-middle adaptations.
I like it when showrunners attempt to answer questions I didn’t know were questions in the first place, like: What was Saul Goodman’s name before it was Saul Goodman? Or how long had Norma and Norman Bates been operating the Bates Motel and how frequently did they change the linens? Or how evil are the zoning board meetings in Castle Rock, Maine?
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Another approach, obviously, is the “History moves in cycles, so let’s tell a story from an entirely different time period in which the echoes with the story we already know are really, really obvious” approach. See HBO’s current House of the Dragon, which is built around the thesis, “If you thought the competition for the Iron Throne was vicious in Game of Thrones, wait’ll you see how vicious it was when the only competitors were Targaryens!”
Amazon’s tautologically titled The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power attempts to split the difference. Based on bits and pieces of Lord of the Rings lore from various J.R.R. Tolkien texts, it’s half “If you liked seeing the awkwardness that ensued when different factions formed a fellowship previously, here’s something similar but different from thousands of years earlier,” and half “Remember that ring that there was a fellowship of/for? Betcha don’t know how it was made!”
Through two episodes made available for critics, The Rings of Power works far better than the three-year publicity build-up led me to fear. The first episode is dedicated primarily to world-building, exposition and proving that storytelling on this scale can be executed for television and generally succeeds, even if some of that exposition lags. Then in the second episode, the story starts to actually move along and there are characters and scenes that I found utterly charming in the way a show like this requires for long-term survival, even if some of the effects and epic scale diminish a tiny bit. It’s technically impressive, reasonably ambitious, packed with Easter eggs that I’m certain I’m not versed enough to get and, with my interest in different plotlines already varying wildly, it could fall off a precarious cliff at any moment.
It’s hard to exactly summarize the plot laid out by series creators JD Payne and Patrick McKay. It’s been generations since the rise of Dark Lord Morgoth, but armies led by the likes of Morfydd Clark’s Galadriel have been fighting Morgoth and his legions, including bloodthirsty orcs and the powerful enchanter Sauron. The cost in lives has been high, but it has been years since anybody has seen an orc or heard tell of Sauron. So… let the good times roll, right? But Galadriel isn’t convinced that evil has been conquered, a point she makes with little success to her half-elf buddy Elrond (Robert Aramayo).
Over in the realms of men, hunky elf soldier Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) is ready to depart his military post, when he and human healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) hear ominous rumors of poisonings in a nearby village. So they take a leisurely walk in the rolling green hills to find out what’s what.
Meanwhile, curious, adventure-seeking Harfoot — feel free to think of them as hobbits if you aren’t obsessed with details — Nori (Markella Kavenagh) and her faithful, less adventurous chum Poppy (Megan Richards) witness a falling star and discover something very peculiar left in its wake.
Stick around a little and you’ll get to folks like dwarf prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur), mysterious hunky human Halbrand and an even more mysterious stranger (Daniel Weyman) whose identity will have the entire Internet playing guessing games. In Tolkien-approved fashion, the storylines are initially diffuse, stretching across the vast map of Middle-earth, and will at some point begin to connect, but in the short term rely on various odd-couple pairings. Arondir and Bronwyn are giving each other yearning glances while other characters make repeated mention of the bad things that happen when humans and elves get flirty. Galadriel and Halbrand are bickering in a way that suggests yearning glances could be close behind if they aren’t eaten by a sea serpent. Elrond and Durin are initially estranged former bros but they may come together as part of an ambitious metallurgy project, a fellowship of the making of a ring, as it were.
Almost all of the relationships and groupings work better in the second episode, written by Better Call Saul veteran Gennifer Hutchison, either because they don’t have the responsibility of introduction or because the more insufferable pairings — I never need to see Elrond and Galadriel make pronouncements at each other again — are split up. The scenes with Elrond, Durin and Durin’s wife Disa (Sophia Nomvete, providing instant energy) are wonderfully engaging. The Harfoots (Harfeet? Harsfeet?) deliver warmth and desperately needed humor. On her own or protecting her son Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin), Bronwyn is fierce and proactive in ways that she totally isn’t when she’s making eyes at Arondir.
It isn’t always clear what the propulsive plot carrying us from episode to episode is supposed to be, but you can tell it’s epic and if you can’t tell, just wait a few minutes and somebody will make a grand pronouncement about good and evil. So far, it’s all in the “broad strokes” stage and many of my favorite parts of these two episodes came when I thought things like, “This reminds me of Netflix’s Sweet Tooth!” and Amazon didn’t pay zillions for that comparison.
On a production level, it’s easy to get caught up in those broad strokes and it’s here that every critic may need to mention how they saw the first two episodes of The Rings of Power. Amazon screened episodes for some available reporters in theaters, and there’s no question that on a big screen, the immersive power of the series is great. You can just get caught up in the majesty of effects-heavy tableaus like Forodwaith, a northern wasteland of towering waterfalls and icy ranges, or the architectural amazement of the dwarfen city of Khazad-dûm, built inside a mountain. If you watch in a theater, without any alternative screen distractions, there’s almost no choice but to concentrate on the blending of computer pyrotechnics, practical effects and a spectacular, layered score by Bear McCreary that’s the only aspect of the series that I’m completely confident will hold up. The music is grandiose and thrilling, and sells how big the show wants to be, no matter how big your screen might be.
Because rewatching the episodes on a smaller screen, my mind absolutely began wandering almost every time anybody conversed for more than a minute at a time. Although many aspects of the series’ effects work hold up regardless of the venue — the attack of a sea serpent in the second episode was a highlight for me — other pieces feel overlit and flat. In a few instances — the parting of glowing clouds at the climax of the pilot or a raft of survivors floating in what looks like a bathtub in the second — it’s borderline comical.
Credit J.A. Bayona, director of the first two hours, with delivering low-frills, suspense-driven scenes like a farmhouse siege with an unseen creature that resembles the helmer’s work in The Orphanage or the more effective beats from his generally forgettable Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom. Bayona smartly realizes that there’s no effect better than just training the camera on Kavenagh’s wide, expressive eyes and using her Spielbergian wonder as a gateway for the audience. For all of their budgetary freedom and unrestrained running times, the actors sold Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies; the series is similar, whether it’s Clark’s not-quite-human blending of serenity and vicious determination or the instantly evident giddiness with which Aramayo makes sure to pronounce every syllable of Galadriel’s name or other bits of Tolkien jargon.
Two episodes isn’t enough time to make a conclusive decision, but I quickly tired of Córdova’s brooding and the ethereal blandness of some of the supporting elves. Many of my complaints are species-specific complaints, an objection to the balance of storytelling and the variations of character groupings, just as House of the Dragon created instant Targaryen fatigue.
Will The Rings of Power continue to hold together as more characters are added, as directors after Bayona take their turns behind the camera, as the focus on a singular plotline intensifies, as the race to the end forces an accelerated schedule on visual effects? Unclear, but after two episodes, it’s a promising start.
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