“Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” Review: Amazon’s Uninspired Yet Expensive Return to Middle-earth

Benjamin Walker, Morfydd Clark and Robert Aramayo in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Photo Courtesy: Amazon Studios

When it comes to big new IP-filled shows, these late summer/early fall weeks couldn’t get any busier. House of the Dragon, from the Game of Thrones universe, premiered on HBO last week to record-shattering audiences. The Star Wars series Andor will debut on Disney+ in mid-September. And now we have the prequel series to Frodo’s quest, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, which debuts on Prime Video with the first two episodes on September 1 and weekly single episodes to follow. Patrick McKay and John D. Payne serve as co-showrunners. Catalan filmmaker J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom) directs the first two episodes of The Rings of Power (TRoP).

Let’s get my Lord of the Rings (LotR) credentials out of the way before I dive into The Rings of Power. I started my J.R.R. Tolkien initiation with The Hobbit back in my early twenties. I found it a concise and engaging piece of fantasy writing. I proceeded to read The Lord of the Rings but stopped halfway through book three, tired of too many giant spiders (and the slow pacing). I watched Peter Jackson’s first trilogy of movies (2001–2003) and still find it a piece of perfect casting, epic imagery and solid book adaptation. I didn’t understand how such a short book like The Hobbit could be made into a trilogy when Jackson decided to revisit Middle-earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) and its consecutive two feature-length follow-ups. I still think he shouldn’t have. Perhaps because of that, I wasn’t necessarily feeling a return to Middle-earth.

Megan Richards and Markella Kavenagh in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Photo Courtesy: Amazon Studios

It’s difficult to pass judgment on TRoP. Notice I didn’t give this show our customary 1–10 rating. Its first season is going to be eight episodes long but only two were made available for review. When it comes to The Rings of Power, I don’t think I have the whole picture yet. 

This is a proposition of ambitious and cinematic proportions. The Rings of Power’s filming took place in New Zealand, the location for all of the LotR-universe films. Amid TRoP’s many CGI-recreated landscapes, you’ll also recognize some of New Zealand’s distinct greenery, hills and valleys. 

Unlike The Wheel of Fortune — another fantasy series adaptation on Prime Video — The Rings of Power looks expensive. The thing is, it is pricey. The Rings of Power has been touted as the most expensive show ever made. The rights to Tolkien’s work alone cost Amazon $250 million. The production price tag for the first season of the show has been reported at around $464 million. Amazon has a lot riding on this show’s success. Season two of TRoP was announced in the summer of last year, a whole 12 months ahead of the show’s premiere. 

Owain Arthur and Sophia Nomvete in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Photo Courtesy: Amazon Studios

By now you may be wanting to know what The Rings of Power is about. In a way, I feel the same. The first two episodes of the show are full of exposition, unhurried table setting and character introductions but not much else. Set thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, The Rings of Power is based on the LotR’s appendices, explained Payne during a press conference with the Television Critics Association (TCA). “Also poems and songs and stories and half-whispered rumors and histories that are found sort of scattered throughout the text,” he added.

The premise of this ensemble show sees the elves heading to Middle-earth from Valinor — the Undying Lands — to fight a war they thought would be over quickly. Said war actually left the place in ruin. They were fighting Morgoth, the first so-called “Dark Lord”, and his cruel lieutenant Sauron. The Elf Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) tells the viewer all about it in the initial, exposition-heavy sequences. She’s obsessed with finding Sauron even if many believe him gone forever. We’re supposed to feel some initial connection to Galadriel but I kept thinking about Cate Blanchett’s definitive portrayal of the role. We also meet Galadriel’s good friend Elrond (Robert Aramayo) and, yet again, that brought me memories of Hugo Weaving.

Nazanin Boniadi, Tyroe Muhafidin, Ismael Cruz Córdova and Charlie Vickers in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Photo Courtesy: Amazon Studios

The series follows Galadriel’s search but also centers on the humans of Middle-earth, whose lives have been disrupted by the remaining Elves inhabiting their land. We’re introduced to the powerful Dwarves and get to spend some time with the Hobbits. To remain alive, the Hobbits have learned the way of becoming invisible to the rest of Middle-earth’s inhabitants. 

I was happy to reunite with all those different creatures and to see the Hobbits’ hairy feet, the green Elven capes, the Dwarves’ braided beards and the many other nostalgia-filled callbacks to Jackson’s first trilogy and Tolkien’s universe at large. Among the Hobbits — here they look almost out of a sumptuous production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream — were two of my favorite characters: the brave and adventure-thirsty Nori (Markella Kavenagh) and her sensible best friend Poppy (Megan Richards).

The one clear thing TRoP has going for it, and which you’ll see even in its early stages, is an update for today’s attempts at inclusivity. The cast isn’t solely white, and women have more central and active roles than in the movies or Tolkien’s literature. But I’m not sure if that alone justifies a whole new show.

Again, I don’t think I’ve spent enough time with the characters of The Rings of Power to know how to properly qualify the show — or appreciate the new Galadriel and Elrond — but so far I’m not thirsty for more. It could be that I’m not so much into fantasy and right now I’m simply looking forward to getting back to Westeros, where fantasy is served with an extra dose of political plotting and, yes, some — preferably consensual — sex on the side.