Since The Lord of the Rings movies, the fantasy realm has become television’s go-to genre in terms of spectacle. Sure, there are many nuanced comedies, dramas, thrillers and horrors out there, but this particular field allows a majesty and degree of escapism unlike any other. It’s why HBO invested heavily in the medieval sub-genre, beginning with the award-winning Game of Thrones.
From the legions battling for the Iron Throne to the Night King to fire-breathing dragons, the network really did raise the bar. Now the onus is on House of the Dragon, which is doing an equally good job of showcasing a Westeros in disarray. However, Amazon’s Prime Video has also stepped up to the plate with the even-more-expensive The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, and make no mistake, it outdoes the aforementioned properties in one major aspect: the environmental design.
The George R.R. Martin adaptations improved as seasons went by, with the likes of King’s Landing, the land beyond the Wall, and the ground Daenerys Targaryen covered all adding textured layers to the feel of that realm. From the temples to monuments to nature, HBO did a decent job of painting a unique ecosystem. However, there was a final polish missing that could have elicited more emotions, whether it be romance, fear or anger.
Simply put, apart from inside castles and chambers — kudos to set and production designers, wardrobe and costume technicians, etc. — one could still tell a lot of CGI went into it, as everything just blended into one big world. But with The Rings of Power, the detail and design are second to none, which enables the show to build different “worlds” with a shockingly authentic aesthetic. In the process, these regions have personalities that the HBO shows lack.
Admittedly, Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon depend on natural light in the day, and then torches at night, setting a mood built on tension, suspense and cerebral drama. But in that sense, these shows limited fans to action on land. Apart from the rare dragon fight or the few scenes of Euron Greyjoy’s naval skirmishes, the HBO shows just weren’t that expansive, feeling grounded but in a bland way. The Rings of Power, though, doesn’t hold back on traversing various landscapes: from the ocean in Episode 1 to the dark caves and tunnels in the Orcs’ mining operation and the bright, wondrous Númenor.
There are also the low-lying meadows of the Southlands, the grassy knolls of the Harfoots, and Gil-galad’s regal kingdom — all showcasing the variety of Middle-earth. To top it off, the visually stunning Dwarf hold, Khazad-dûm, revealed what lay beneath the surface, highlighting the breadth of the entire region. From top to the core, these various settings have their own lighting, sound design and aura. In so doing, these polished locales add a lot to the show, coming off as distinguished characters.
By having these backgrounds organically pop so much, the VFX designers make each location a truly outstanding sub-story. As the series goes across the map, each journey feels like a different episode, in and of itself. This honors the scope and grandeur Peter Jackson laid down years ago, but evolving it way better, which honestly has a lot to do with the tech and expertise now available. That said, Rings of Power is how world-building should be done, creating something for eyes to feast on and reaffirming that Amazon spent all that money pretty well to outdo what HBO does, at least on the scale and style front.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power streams Fridays on Prime Video.