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The Rings of Power, Episodes 1-2: Dazzling, But With Very Little Magic

Going into this I had various questions on my mind: What would be the emotional focus? What unique visual language and designs would come out of this whopping budget of almost a billion dollars? What would they be drawing inspiration from, visually and narratively, to bring their story to life? After watching what has been released, my impression–so far–is that The Rings of Power is a show that wants to capture the dazzling scope of Tolkien’s worlds, but its reliance on visual shorthand to create emotional responses ends up feeling sadly derivative. There are indeed moments of genuine emotion and characterization that I find interesting and promising, but the overwrought style of the show seems more like it’s working against expressiveness than for it. 

For full disclosure, I do come from a Tolkien fandom background–there was definitely a point in my life where I was indeed obsessed with The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, the Appendices, and various other scraps of lore i could get my hands on. So of course, even though I went into this knowing that because of the copyright issues, they would not be adapting any of the Silmarillion storylines, I could not help feeling at least a little disappointed that favorite characters and plots would not be appearing. Still, for this review I wanted to focus less on the minutia of comparing book lore, and more trying to discern what the show itself seeks to build. And it’s here, in the realm of establishing a unique visual identity, that TROP seems to struggle right off the bat. 

The Jackson adaptions, and subsequent Hobbit Trilogy, are such a cultural presence that it makes sense that any adaption from then on would have to work with the designs and visual language that those movies established. Still, what strikes me is that there’s a bizarre absence of any real visual storytelling beyond pristine, pretty images and simple shorthand, much of which feels cribbed from the Jackson era of adaptions, but without necessarily doing anything with that language. There’s the music, the soft glowing lighting, the art-nouveau influences in the elvish designs. There are many images that are stunning to look at individually, but there’s an eerie crispness to every frame that doesn’t lend itself to building a believable world. In its rush to establish several thousand years of lore and history, it comes across as feeling more like a bombardment of familiar image after image without leaving room for the viewer to breathe and connect meanings and associations on their own. The editing, especially in the first episode, is rather strange to me as well as there are many shots that feel the need to focus on a character’s face or eyes, before cutting to whatever it is they’re looking at, that feel overly hand-holding: “look, Audience, did you NOTICE that she was LOOKING and thinking about that [object]?” 

Speaking of visual language, this is an aspect that I acknowledge is tricky to navigate. Tolkien’s works arguably did establish a lot of what “fantasy” is expected to look like through working with a lot of classic fairy tale and mythological influences, and a lot of the visual language we know of now comes from that. Balancing the jarringly cliché and the comfortably familiar is a tough line to walk, I understand that, but it feels like this show, the majority of the time, decides to take the most basic and easy modes of referential visual shorthand rather than doing any work to establish its own distinct internal meanings. Dark fiery symbol bad. Glowy clouds straight out of a Church worship song slideshow background good. This dim lighting means Sadness. It seems to play more with emotional associations with specific visuals rather than working to creating unique and specific feeling. When Galadriel talks in a  copyright-mandated vagueness about the consequences of evil and the image accompanying it is some rather basic stock imagery of a cartoonish pile of helmets straight out of the similarly cartoonish scene in Snyder’s Man of Steel, it just feels a little silly. The fact that a lot of the action of the elves, especially in the fight in the ice cave, also seemed to focus a lot more on A Variety of Fun Poses rather than actual movement and excitement added to that cartoonishness.

This is frustrating to describe because in a lot of ways, I do enjoy stylization in fight scenes and in genre stories overall—after all, look at the way it’s done in wuxia, or anime, or even the stylized blocking in musicals or classic swashbuckling films. Here however, it just feels less like stylization and more like a lack of intention. And if there are decisions being made, it’s always towards the most lackluster directions ever; once again, leaning more towards the safety of familiar visual shorthand more than anything particularly unique.

A lot of this is definitely related to the problem of elves, and the issue of how does one make a story from the point of view of  eternally ethereally beautiful and powerful people interesting. TROP does start to go in one direction of showing the eerieness inherent living adjacent to semi-immortal beings, which is one of the more thematically and emotionally interesting aspects to explore so far. There is an uncanniness to a lot of the elves that feels less “breathtakingly ethereal and youthful” and more “trying to cling stiffly to a preserved sense of beauty and life” which is thematically fascinating to me, but also might just be poor decisions on the part of the casting and makeup artists. To tangent on a note of personal taste—am personally disappointed in the decision veering away from the Elvish androgyny of men! Of all the things they did not crib from the Jacksonian aesthetics, they just had to leave that one out. Boring. I know that beauty standards for men differ of course by culture and that things considered “androgynous” from a Western POV might not necessarily be so in East Asia, but from someone definitely adjacent to that media it really is like…can we get a little prettiness? As a treat? Not even just talking about people’s natural physical appearances, but like decisions in the artistic presentation. This show is so concerned with making every single frame Pretty without necessarily being communicative, except for when it comes to Elf Men Appearance.

In a review like this, I feel obligated, of course, to mention that there are indeed folks of the most insufferable kind complaining about “diversity” and “realism” in fantasy, aka being crybabies about being “forced” to see Brown and Black People existing in a European-inspired fantasy. Many of these people are fools and racist clout-chasers not worth engaging with in any way, and I resent how in defending the talent and artistry of people of color, we need to de-facto defend the soulless corporations making the larger and aggressively mediocre works. The false dichotomy of “racist chuds vs. the Progressive Corporate Streaming Platform” leaves a bad taste in my mouth, since it seems to imply that there isn’t any other meaningful work involving People of Color that exists outside of mainstream media graciously “allowing” them to be a part of their diverse tentpole works under the creative control of white directors, producers, and shareholders.

A lot of Galadriel’s story feels limited by the copyright constraints the show needs to work within, and thus the sections that explain the Elvish migration to and from Valinor feel very awkwardly restrained. As I mentioned above, there’s lots of talk of generic “darkness” and “evil,” and we see the fading of the Two Trees in the prologue, and there is interpersonal conflict fairly early in the story between Galadriel and her cohort, but the pace of the story did not really have as much emotional anchor to it as it should have, despite lots of things happening action-wise. To sparingly reference the Lore(tm), it is notable that one of Galadriel’s motivations for going to Middle Earth in the first place was the desire to build and rule her own kingdom, and this desire for dominance is why, in The Fellowship of the Ring, her rejecting of the Ring is significant. The Galadriel of TROP deviates from this in that it frames her as being motivated by revenge, rejecting the peace and safety of returning to Valinor to continue to fight the good fight against The Darkness(tm). This could be a very interesting motivation, and I’m not against this show trying to establish its own storyline. However a lot of this, at this point, feels limited by the fact that Valinor and its significance doesn’t feel very well emotionally established aside from the generic feeling of “this is a Good, Heavenly Place.” That’s all well and good, but once again, it feels like a shorthand rather than a genuine emotional connection, and thus Valinor just becomes yet another funky fantasy place on a map. There’s a lot of very interesting drama to the idea of rejecting a heavenly ascension, which is what the visual style of the scene at the end of the first episode seems to reference, but it feels flat, rather than otherworldly. The effect of the lore copyright limitations, the preference for simple visual shorthand, and this change in motivation is that so far, a lot of Galadriel’s story feels inadvertently like a propaganda film crafted by the power-hungry Galadriel of Tolkien’s lore—one where her decisions are framed from a simple noble cause, and where any complicating factors of difficult family characters  and clan relationships (*cough cough* Fëanor)  and moral issues of wanting to acquire power and become a conqueror, feel awkwardly censored out, rather than organically written around.

It’s not that the series is completely without emotional connection—most of the emotional interest of the show so far has come up in the second episode, which is helpful for featuring much less awkward exposition jumping around maps,  and much more actual character interaction. Young Elrond’s interactions and conversations with Durin were the standout for me—the intimacy and conflict between them, the difference in culture and lifespan and the ways that affected their relationship, stuck with me a lot, and I hope that the show explores more moments like that. The appearance of Celebrimbor was another aspect that inches closer to what seems to working out to be the main ideas of the show. From what little we see of him, I am intrigued as his portrayal as a character  invested in the power of beautiful crafted things, who lives amongst beauty in a colorful Maxfield-Parrish Arts and Crafts environment. Personally, this is a theme that I find very compelling—the pursuit of art and beauty ideals and whether or not it can lead to harm, and it’s a thread that I’m interested in seeing play out for the rest of the series. Especially since it is all ultimately leading up to a tragic ending—the promise of unity against evil by using his craft to make Magic Rings, that as we all know will only lead to ensnarement, destruction, and the fading of magic from the world overall.

Other people have articulated it better than I have, but the uniqueness of Tolkien, and why people have been so drawn to his work is not just because of the wide scope of his nerdy worldbuilding, but because he is able to make us care about the relationships and lives of the characters both on an epic, mythological scale, as well as on a more intimate and casual one. There’s a constant tone of bittersweet resignation throughout his work, and a consistent rejection of straightforward triumphalism even as there is longing for it.  Because of this, I am less impressed by the multi-million dollar scenes of dazzling New Zealand vistas and pretty fantasy props and costumes in crisp HD, than I am with visuals there to convey any semblance of lives and feelings, and it’s frustrating how it seems to be a series that is both uncannily stiff and derivative in much of its expression. The series is not completely released yet, so there is still room to see how the story will evolve and grow. Still, despite its potential, I feel like it will be is frustrated and confounded by all the craft decisions I’ve outlined above.

Author: maiden theory

I'm just a Bird whose intentions are good

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