‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’ Refreshes Tolkien’s Beloved World With Stunning Scale

Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” is such a massive undertaking in the annals of streaming that it’s almost forgivable to scarcely think about the actual plot. It arrives already trailing endless chatter about its stunning cost of $1 billion. To the studio’s credit, you can indeed see every penny on the screen. But let’s start with the basics. “The Rings of Power” is a prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved novels, yet in reality it’s more attached to the groundbreaking “Lord of the Rings” trilogy Peter Jackson unleashed in the early 2000s. The visuals, the music, the production design all clearly reference how Jackson envisioned Tolkien’s fantasy saga. This is to be expected. Putting aesthetics aside, the series does so far hold on its own as an adventure always on the move.

The narrative is set thousands of years before the events of “Lord of the Rings.” It is the Second Age and the immortal Elves have expanded from their homeland of Valinor and landed in Middle Earth, where they wage battle against the evil Morgoth and those snarling orcs. One of Morgoth’s generals, Sauron, along with the orcs, has disappeared following their defeat by the Elves. Among the elven troops there is confidence the evil has been defeated and peace is now permanent. But the warrior Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) is convinced the war is not over, and she still seeks revenge on Sauron for killing her brother. The high king Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) is content with believing victory has been achieved and is annoyed by Galadriel’s obsession with Sauron. One of his officials, Elrond (Robert Aramayo) hopes to strike a pact with dwarf prince Durin (Owain Arthur). Among the troops, elven warrior Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova) harbors a secret, dangerous love for mortal healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi). 

“The Rings of Power” is such a huge production that just the first two episodes contain too much plotting to fully recap. It is the scale which truly delivers for the series, since devoid of its lush visuals and stunning design, the plot could feel like a classic case of winking at the classic that came before. “Rings” fans are meant to be taken in by how we get to see younger versions of Galadriel and Elrond, played respectively in the movies by Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving. This is in essence their “origin” stories where we get to see what formed them into the older, wiser characters of the films. For Galadriel the writing plots her out as a total adventure hero, brandishing weapons and tackling storms at sea. Her obsession is revenge and she spends the first two chapters defying her superiors and going on a swashbuckling adventure. The politics are left to the elven males like Elrond, who has some wickedly funny scenes visiting the underground dwarf realm of Khazad-dûm (a lush utopia and not the rundown shantytown of the movies), facing the wrath of an angry Durin, who resents his friend not visiting for 20 years. The Khazad-dûm moments deliver more of the classic Tolkien touch where we get the feel of intricate cultures at play. 

There is much irony in how Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” revived the fantasy genre for serious cinema, and paved the way for shows like “Game of Thrones.” Now “The Rings of Power” is trying to catch up to the kind of Peak TV defined by George R.R. Martin’s own creation. It doesn’t go for the patient world-building of the movies or even the medievalist drama of “Thrones,” it’s trying to combine both with the energy of a Saturday morning romp. You don’t drop a billion dollars to be meandering. Arondir and Bronwyn share longing stares with gorgeous, misty backgrounds but it gets soon interrupted by signs that the evil of Sauron is creeping into the land or an attacking orc who Arondir has to battle in a tunnel. We still get a sense for the vastness of Tolkien’s world. There are communities within communities, like the Harfoots, where we meet Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), an aspiring adventurer tired of small village life. She gets the third major storyline when a meteor-like object crashes in a field, revealing a long-bearded stranger with potential magical abilities.

For now this is all set up and “The Rings of Power” promises a first season of even bigger sights. As the narrative begins to pick up steam, this is a series to simply gaze at for how it was all put together. The visuals are as immersive as the movies, with nods at classic fantasy, both from Tolkien’s imaginings and Jackson’s trilogy. Showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay cheerfully borrow from the great trove of Tolkien writings, including “The Silmarillion,” which you don’t need to know to like the series, but is a decent reference point if one wishes to nerd out. The music score by Bear McCreary avoids copying Howard Shore’s instantly recognizable melodies, while aiming for orchestral grandeur. In particular, the love theme for Arondir and Bronwyn stands out as an elegant gem. Despite all the action, “The Rings of Power” also stands as a reminder of gentler times. Unlike HBO’s new “House of the Dragon,” this is not a gritty, blood-soaked psycho drama. It’s downright idealistic and devoid of cynicism. There is no other way to return to Middle Earth. For fans it will be familiar territory but once again brought to stunningly large life. 

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” season one begins streaming Sept. 2 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Amazon Prime Video.