As someone who has spent a fair amount of energy in the past criticizing the idea of prequels and the films of 20th Century Fox, it pains me to say that for the second time this summer, a prequel from Fox is actually a pretty hefty slice of entertainment, smart and soulful in a way I wouldn't have guessed. "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes" is entirely different than any other movie in the franchise, and that's one of its strengths. The film isn't terribly surprising in terms of where it goes, but it is very clever in how it gets there, and it is driven largely by yet another groundbreaking performance from Andy Serkis, who is nothing less than the first digital age superstar at this point.
One of the first questions I had about this movie is "does this tie in directly to the series that already exists?", and it appears that the answer is "sort of." There are definitely some direct references to the previous films, but for the most part, they're the sort of elbow-to-the-ribs references I'm not a fan of. Someone yells "it's a madhouse," someone else plays with a broken Statue of Liberty toy, and someone else tells a "damn dirty ape" to take its paws off of him. Those references got the snickers you'd expect, but they're quick and there aren't too many of them. There are some overt story connections to the original films that play out via newspaper headlines and cable news stories we see in the background that I found more satisfying and interesting because of the way it suggests where this story could be heading if Fox decides to follow up this picture.
What makes this work above and beyond its place in the franchise is that it would still be a completely satisfying picture even if there were no other films in the series. It works as a complete film, and it works in a way that is very, very difficult to pull off. Despite the presence of James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, and Brian Cox in key roles, this is not a film about the human characters. They are incidental. This is the story of one ape in particular, and the way a series of decisions by human beings lead to an uprising and a shift in the balance of power on the planet. It is largely experiential, told from the point of view of Caesar, played by Andy Serkis.