“A Shadow of the Past”
While watching the first episode of The Rings of Power, the latest big-budget television play for streaming audiences, I found myself desperately craving a little reality. I do not mean this in terms of genre or content, but in terms of production. A key early scene sees a group of elves gathered in a forest. It has been created using expensive computer graphics. An unearthly golden glow shines down on the characters as they converse. It made me desperately wish that this Amazon Prime epic production had simply found an actual forest on location and shot the scene there.
It feels as if with every passing year audiences are being bombarded more and more with computer-generated or otherwise artificial settings and backgrounds. Marvel Studios seem the worst offender with this – often changing where a scene is set between producing a theatrical trailer and releasing the actual film – although one cannot ignore the influence of Lucasfilm and their patented LED-based “volume” technology, that isn’t much better. CGI is a tool for sure, but it is a very large toolbox, and no matter the quality of a virtual background it is never going to beat simply going to a forest.
The Lord of the Rings is a very relevant text to bring up in this context, since Peter Jackson’s award-winning movie trilogy demonstrates the problem better than literally anything else in Hollywood. The first part, 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, extensively used real-world location shoots that gave everything a sharp immediacy and realism despite the fantasy setting. Its climactic running battle between the Fellowship and an orc war band is arguably the best action sequence of the trilogy because it feels physically real and tactile. By 2003’s Return of the King, the scale and ambition of the action saw most of it rendered extensively in CGI. The critical tactility of the former movie was lost, and the film feels much less engaging and dramatic as a result.
Amazon’s new effort, which adapts the appendices of Tolkien’s works to create a prequel 2,000-odd years before Gandalf and Frodo, suffers from the same problems Return of the King did – and Jackson’s own Hobbit prequels particularly did. If there is a line that runs from full on-location realism to essentially virtual production, The Rings of Power sits much closer to the latter end than the former. The parts I enjoyed the most were the parts that involved CGI the least.
Weirdly, a lengthy action prologue that seems inserted purely to kick things off with some energy winds up having the opposite effect. Where this first episode struggles is in these scenes of elves, including a young Galadriel (Morffyd Clark) and Elrond (Robert Aramayo). Where it picks up is in introducing some characters new to Rings fans: young hobbit Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavanagh), and ill-fated lovers Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi).
CGI aside, J.A. Bayona does a decent job of directing the episode. It is largely set-up, and as such makes judging the series overall a little unfair. It will certainly gain an immediate fan following, as well as detractors. Right now I honestly cannot decide if I am one or the other.