Despite hearing over and over again that "it was WAAAAYYYY better than I expected," I came into Rise of the Planet of the Apes with some trepidation. Like many of you, I had been relieved to hear that the reboot / prequel to the series was actually good and not just a nostalgia cash grab, but the lingering taste of Tim Burton's incomprehensible mess from ten years ago kept me cautious. I also heard - often from even the best reviews - that while the apes were amazing, the humans were one dimensional and one longed to return to Caesar's story.
To be sure, the story of Will Rodman (James Franco)'s search for a cure to Alzheimer's isn't all that engaging. John Lithgow does the best he can as Will's father, Charles, but most of the time he just plays "confused," "surprised," or "frustrated." Freida Pinto is left with even less as primate veterinarian Caroline Aranha, who somehow dates Will for five years and never thinks to ask him why Caesar is so intelligent or even look into his research on ALZ 112. Gen Sys project manager Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) is a bottom line driven, moustache twirling baddie, and for good measure there's Will's neighbor whose only emotion seems to be "indignant."
A series of misunderstandings lead to the death of Will's test subject, Bright Eyes, and the cancellation of his research, so he smuggles home Caesar (Andy Serkis) and some of the ALZ 112 and tests it on his father. Bright Eyes genetically passed on the 112 to Caesar, and his intellect is formidable, which becomes threatening through more misunderstandings. The good news is that most of the film is less about Will and more about Caesar, and if you've seen Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, you have some idea why that justifies Rise of the Planet of the Apes in and of itself.
This is somewhat secondary to the review itself, but I'm not sure that Rise of the Planet of the Apes needed so many references to the original series. Now it isn't just Tom Felton saying (verbatim) Charlton Heston's "damn dirty ape" line, or naming many of the apes after memorable moments from the original series (Bright Eyes, Cornelia, Maurice, and Rocket*). It gets silly when you realize that Will's experimental drug is named after the running time of Planet of the Apes (no, really; the screenwriter nearly named it RT-112), and I don't know that we needed the subplot about the space mission to Mars and the Icarus disappearing, or necessarily how it was that apes began riding horses. On the other hand, I liked the way writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver incorporated the line "it's a mad house! A MAD HOUSE!" into the film (also through Felton) and a hint of why humanity declined as apes ascended the evolutionary ladder.
I really can't heap enough praise on Andy Serkis for bringing Caesar to life. I know that there are other performers behind Rocket, Buck, Koba, and Maurice, not to mention a host of WETA programmers and animators hard at work to make everything look real. The cgi is, initially, noticeable, especially when Caesar is very young, but before long I found myself engrossed in the story and how emotive Caesar was. Watching the raw footage in the extras, it's clear that Serkis is not only the physical template for Caesar, but his acting, his facial expressions, and his presence carry over perfectly. It would, I feel, be a shame if Serkis isn't nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the film, but I suspect instead the Academy will create a new award for Motion Capture. That said, what Serkis does goes beyond motion capture - without Serkis as Caesar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn't go anywhere.
So here's the deal: Rise of the Planet of the Apes may lack some of the pulpy touches that fans of the series are accustomed to, but the polished nature doesn't diminish anything going for the film. It erases the memory of 2001's Planet of the Apes remake and exists as a sort of alternate retelling of Escape and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. You'll be pleasantly surprised how much better Rise is than anyone would hope from the studio who botched Alien vs Predator and Live Free or Die Hard (not to mention the Star Wars prequels). I'm actually looking forward to the next film, which has been hinted at as being a "Full Metal Jacket" of the Apes. With what Rupert Wyatt and 20th Century Fox have done with Rise, count me in.
* There's an extra on the disc that helpfully explains that Maurice is named after Maurice Evans, who played Doctor Zaius in Planet of the Apes, and that Rocket is named after one of the crew members in the film.