Middle-earth has seen its fair share of iterations throughout its tenure in the cultural zeitgeist. It rums the gamut of the viewing spectrum, with the original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy widely considered a masterpiece and “The Hobbit” trilogy widely being considered and unwatchable disaster. So to say our anticipation and hope for “The Rings of Power” was high would be an understatement. Getting the best and worst of something so beloved automatically puts you in a side eyed mindset viewing, and the enormous amount of money dumped into this paired with its potential sink or swim possibility puts the series in an uphill battle from the jump.
Now that the first two episodes are available to stream on Amazon Prime Video, what we are given is a series lost somewhere in the middle. It’s not the disaster of “The Hobbit” trilogy- attempting to stretch a 200 page book into 9 hours of film- but it is also not the fully immersive, cutting edge fantasy brought to life mastery of “Lord of the Rings.” “The Rings of Power” is absolutely stunning to look at, but stripped of its “Lord of the Rings” connection, it becomes just another bland fantasy series more than serviceable young adult fantasy.
Yeah I know, another disclaimer. But it is important to note up top that I have not read the source material that “Rings of Power” based on. I read the original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit” only after I had seen the movies (or during actually, as I read “The Two Towers” while waiting for the film to hit theaters), so whatever gaps “Rings of Power” is trying to fill in the and plethora of new characters that are introduced I have 0 prior connection to. So no, this review will not be all about the history of Middle Earth and all the things the show got right and changed from the book nor an appendix of character bios and why they’re integral to the overall story. This is not a “well, actually” review, and it is only based on the limited knowledge I have of the overall world as it is represented predominantly onscreen. I know enough about the other connected works to piece things together peripherally, but if you’re coming for a knowledge check or to take me to Tolkien school you’ve come to the wrong review.
I do own a book on how to speak Elvish, though. Even tried to learn it once. So I do have some true nerdy fandom credibility and skin in the game. And this is probably the only place I will even be able to say “I own a book on how to speak a made up language from made up fantasy series written 70 years ago” as a badge of honor.
It’s important to establish your prior knowledge and engagement of the lore because “Rings of Power’s” first major mistake is making itself inaccessible to casual viewers. This is even stranger when you realize how cheesy and silly everything is, with everything feeling like a dumbed down version of more meaningful events. It also tries desperately to solidify its connection to the original trilogy while also quickly establishing that this is nothing like the Middle Earth you remember. It’s an off-putting dichotomy that permeates throughout both episodes, and makes “Rings of Power” feel like a show made for people in the know and no one else. It does this a few ways, the first of which is the story the series chooses to tell in the first place. We are given yet another exposition dump at the start of the first episode, once again being told of a great war and a great villain and a great victory filled with great heroes we literally never, ever see. Apparently, a battle for the literal soul of Middle Earth at the time of blossoming life and newly formed bonds isn’t interesting. What IS interesting to “Rings of Power” is what everyone does after the great war is over and everything is in an uneasy calm. Because who doesn’t love watching people you’ve never met talk about old times we never saw against gorgeous, lush, digital green screens of places we’ve never seen?
Not only is the story “Rings of Power” chooses to tell bland and boring, but the sprawling, jet setting character introductions is an exhausting mess. Both episodes fly over the map of Middle Earth so much and so often you can’t even get your bearings in one open field before we’re instantly whisked off to another open field, but this one with a whole set of new faces we don’t know. “Rings of Power” feels like the opening to “Game of Thrones,” and not in a “I will NOT skip this intro, thank you” kind of way. The series decides to introduce every single character in the show all at once, without warning, cause, or context. We get a few poorly written phrases between two characters with British accents about things we should already know (but don’t), and then we’re suddenly back to the map to meet some other people we’ve never met but should already know, (you guessed it), but don’t.
Without spoilers, I’ll site a specific example of what I’m talking about. After spending some time with Galadriel and the elves and a random detour to the Harfoot camp for…reasons, we are whisked across the map to meet Arondir, a soldier elf keeping watch over a village of men. I”m assuming, actually because it’s not really all that clear. We are instantly dropped into his world and through nothing other than shot composition are told he’s important. But outside of that, if you aren’t strongly versed in the lore you have no idea who Arondir is and why he should matter. His whole introduction arc felt like an episode 6 conclusion, packed with a love story we know nothing about, a mission we aren’t told, a past that is never fleshed out, and a new adventure that feels completely disconnected from the entirety of “Rings of Power.” We don’t need to know everything about anyone, but we should know enough about them from the beginning to care and the series does a terrible job at doing this.
And that goes for everyone in the series so far. I simply don’t care about any of them because I’m not given any time to know them at all. Should you probably have read the books to understand the show better? Sure, but it shouldn’t be a requirement of adaption, and something so big and so expensive should be accessible to everyone. “Rings of Power” fails to provide viewers with one, single protagonist interesting enough to want to see the series all the way through. Storytelling 101: have a compelling protagonist who’s journey is the catalyst for all events. “Rings of Power” does not have this, and it dulls the interest in the vast world we are exhaustively traversing. Take “Fellowship of the Ring” as an example of this concept being executed correctly. Everything we experience is interpreted through Frodo. Every new character centers around him and their relationship to him, and we spend a good 45 minutes with Frodo learning about him, his family, his home, his friends etc. Even Gandalf is introduced to the audience THROUGH Frodo, which allows us to attach ourselves as viewers to his journey and learn about the additional characters along the way. This also allows us to develop our own favorites among the growing cast, so that by the time we get to the end and everyone goes off in their own directions, “The Two Towers” can explore multiple storylines at once because all of their basis and foundations have been established.
“Rings of Power” does none of this, and never once gives us anyone to guide us through the story or sticks around long enough with anyone to feel connected to or vested in. So, not only have we decided to spend the majority of our first episodes on the most uninteresting parts of a larger story, but we are also told to follow countless characters we know practically nothing about other than they exist here in Middle Earth. “Rings of Power” has no one to truly follow or help you navigate the fantasy world we are being dumped into, and ends up feeling boring and bland and ultimately listless.
I do want to be clear: I am not knocking anyone’s performance here. There’s too many characters to go through (and you probably wouldn’t recognize them anyway), but everyone seems to be giving it their all and doing the most with what they’re given. The production design and special effects are absolutely stunning, and “Rings of Power” spared no expense when it comes to its visual imagination. Do I long for the on location drone shots of New Zealand that made “Lord of the Rings” feel alive, lived in, and REAL? Sure, but “Rings of Power” makes up for it by creating some truly beautiful things to look at. It is everything “House of Dragon” wishes it was visually.
Look, I didn’t set out to trash “Rings of Power.” I was actually really looking forward to it, and I wanted it to be a triumphant return to a world I genuinely loved at the best opportunities for great adventure stories in the history of Middle Earth. Unfortunately, all the money in the world can’t buy compelling characters and more cohesive narrative. I really hate to say this, but if I never watch another “Rings of Power” episode I’ll be perfectly fine. I just don’t care about any character in the show enough to see their journey through, and I find the story at hand to be underwhelming at best, completely uninteresting at worst. I know that’s a really harsh judgement to pass on a show with only two episodes, but you had 2 and half hours and $715 million to make me care about the next hour, and “Rings of Power” simply doesn’t deliver.
I am aware that I am probably in the minority here, and this scathing “Rings of Power” review will likely get me thrown to the orcs who ain’t nothing but maggoty bread for three stinkin’ days and will be absolutely roasted for this dissenting opinion.
But I stand by every word, so it looks like meat is back on the menu, boys!
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
The first two episodes of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings Of Power” are now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. You can watch the trailer below.