James Franco's Will is a scientist working on a gene therapy "cure" for Alzheimer's, something he's personally invested in given that his father has been struck by the disease, and is testing the serum on a chimpanzee. After the ape escapes during a board presentation, the program is shut down, however it's discovered the chimp had given birth in its cell. Will takes it home temporarily, but once he sees the serum genes have been passed down, he keeps it to measure the results.
A few years later and the ape - named Caesar - is now incredibly smart, but is pining for the outside world. However, Will has given his father the serum with amazing results, and actual increased intelligence. However, it doesn't last long and comes to a head where he gets into a neighbour's car (who admittedly stupidly left the door open and keys in ignition) and crashes it. Caesar sees the neighbour being aggressive and goes after him with a vengeance, only to be taken away by animal control to a primate facility that feels like it's long overdue a secret video visit by Panorama.
Meanwhile, testing is resumed after Will's boss sees the potential financial profits of the serum, and more apes are brought in. Caesar, like other apes, is mistreated at the facility, so begins to use that super-brain of his to plan his revenge. He enlists the help of a signing orangutan, the facility's alpha male (who he totally outsmarts) and a massive gorilla to get the revolution going, and with plentiful supplies of brain juice at the lab, the rise of the apes kicks off a lot sooner than originally planned.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been called a lot of things, a prequel, a reboot, even a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth movie in the series that similarly saw an ape called Caesar rise up against oppression and lead a revolt. I'm not really sure which is which to be honest, but while I'll try and look into where it fits into the series (if at all) a bit later, I'll say now that it's bloody good. It's fair to say no one really saw this coming.
The star of the show is Caesar. Make no mistake, Caesar is the lead character, and the only thing wrong with the film is that James Franco gets top billing over Andy Serkis, who does an immense job as the wronged ape. Given that the character is also animated (spectacularly well by the way, by WETA) people will tend to put the emphasis on the effects. One word: don't. While the effects are stunning, it's Serkis' motion capture performance here that creates a brilliant and absolutely real character.
It's like Gollum taken to several new levels, and it's just breathtaking to watch. Caesar's arc is brilliantly done, and there are some absolutely thrilling sequences, even throwaway ones such as an amazing little transition piece where Caesar ages as he climbs a redwood tree. But where he really comes into his own is the primate facility, where he gets all the over mistreated apes behind him and starts kicking his plan into overdrive.
Luckily, the script is up to all this aping about so it doesn't just become another effects film. The seeds behind Caesar's eventual turn are a little clumsy (especially since it's mainly based on problems with the same neighbour over several years) but the way he uses his fellow apes and how he gets them to not only follow him but to do his bidding is brilliant. Unfortunately, there's not a massive amount in there for the humans to do, but the performances are fine across the board, especially John Lithgow as Will's father, although it's Tom Felton who is probably the most memorable as a twattish facility worker who ends up being the pantomime villain of the piece.
But it works gangbusters, especially when the inevitable kicks in. He's also responsible for repeating a couple of lines from the original Planet of the Apes, the second of which will make you cringe when first said, but is actually used as a fantastic device to further the impact of one of the landmark character scenes for Caesar (and something itself which has been previously documented in earlier films in the series).
There are a few references to the previous films, although none of them really take you out of the film much. I appreciated some of the more subtle references, such as an early scene where there's an attempted escape through field full of high corn, and a mini-subplot told through media where we're told on TV about the first manned mission to Mars on the spaceship Icarus, only to see a newspaper headline later on saying "Lost In Space". There's also a neat payoff of another factor in their rise, as known from the original films, in the end titles.
In terms of where it actually fits with the other films, it's really up to director Rupert Wyatt. It could technically be a precursor to the original film, as the "sacred scrolls" in that picture are pretty vague, but some of it certainly follows Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. But I'm happy to treat it as its own film, as even without those movies it stands alone brilliantly. While it maybe could have had a couple of parts of the subplot with Will's father exchanged for more ape magic, it's a breezy ride that still feels satisfying due to the expert editing.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the little blockbuster who could, a franchise entry that no one really expected, and that a lot of people didn't have a lot of faith in. Nevertheless, it's a brilliant movie with a knockout central performance and a final act that should have audiences whooping in the aisles while also increasing sales of Kleenex. The only thing to do now is to wonder where the next instalment will take us, as there has to be a sequel, especially with how much money the film has made so far. It would also be a very sad thing to not see Caesar again.
But, at the end of the day, you just have to ask yourself: Why cookie Rocket?