Let’s flash back, not to Middle Earth, but to May 11th 2001, and I’m standing on the deck of the Soho House yacht in Cannes. There’s not much doing on a Friday night, and I’m about to troop off the exit gangplank, when I spot a merry band traversing the entrance boards onto the yacht. Led by the redoubtable figure of Ian McKellen, they include Sean Bean, Billy Boyd and more; yes, it’s the cast of Lord of the Rings, currently shooting the first movie down under and in Cannes to promote a sizzle reel. They’re a disconsolate bunch; they didn’t think that the trilogy will be completed, and over an hour of off-the-record cigarette smoking, seemed fairly confident that the plug would be pulled by the studio abruptly on completion of the first movie.
As well as being a beloved literary text for the ages, the Lord of the Rings film trilogy turned out to be rather more popular than the cast expected, and the original trilogy spawned a somewhat less popular and overtly drawn-out set of films based on The Hobbit. Now serial tax-evaders Amazon have invested over a billion dollars turning various JRR Tolkein appendices, laundry lists and telephone-pad doodles into an eight-part blockbusting streaming series, the first two episodes of which dropped on Prime this week. Whether it’ll be a hit is unknown to any of us; what we’re looking at here is whether Rings of Power is any good or not.
‘This isn’t an adventure’ offers one of the cast, but it’s certainly grand of scale; we’d headed back to middle-Earth, and join up with a legion of elves led by Morfydd Clark as Galadriel in search of unseen evil wizard Sauron, so this is a firm prequel to the first LOTR trilogy. Rather than She-Hulk’s bare-bones sitcom A and B story, all the stories are weighted A here; Charles Edwards plays Celebrimbor, who wins a stone-smashing completion with some dwarves and is clearly about to build a forge and make some rings. There’s also a pestilence plaguing the land, with black leaves falling and cows producing black muck from their udders, much to the consternation of Sadoc Burrows (Lenny Henry). Cheeky Harfoots Nori (Markella Kavenagh) and Poppy Proudfoot (Megan Richards) are wowed by a mysterious giant called The Stranger (Daniel Weyman) who falls from the sky in a flaming meteor, and Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) explores some tunnels under a burnt out village.
All these stories will presumably come together at some point soon, but episode one was agonisingly slow to start and fragmented of approach; there’s lots of sub-poetic waffle like ‘I can still feel the light of the trees on my face’ but it takes a long time for any of the diverse characters to land. But things do pep up a little in episode 2, with less chat about sigils and more direct action, with an impressive underwater sea-worm, a funny throw-away joke about a lift delivered by MVP Owain Arthur as Durin IV, and a tense scene involving a close-quarters fight with some kind of orc that attests to the spooky-spooky influence of director/producer JA Bayona, who directed these two openers.
Sure, there are striking moments here, but it’s fair to say that whatever magic the original trilogy so unexpectedly conjured has long since gone away under Amazon’s leaden touch; the result feels synthetic and fake. It’s no surprise that Amazon are out of touch with their target audience, at a time when we can’t confidently feed our families or heat our homes in part due to the deadly corporate greed that Amazon have come to symbolise. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power may be a shiney-shiney-thing to those who love trolls and elves, but to the casual viewer, it’s one long boring descent into Mordor. Maybe there’ll be an unexpected surprise again, but I’m bored of these rings already.