Prequels always start out with one strike against them.
This is especially true in the case of the Planet of the Apes movies, because the ending there is one of the classics in pop culture history.
In the case of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this knowledge adds a sense of foreboding throughout the film — things will come to an end, and it's going to be a bummer for the human race. Whether or not you appreciate this overarching mood is key to your enjoyment (or lack thereof) of the movie.
The film finds James Franco as a medical researcher on the hunt for an Alzheimer's cure. His mission is personal, as his father (John Lithgow) is suffering through the disease.
Franco's experiments eventually yield Caesar, a young ape who exhibits exceptional intelligence (note to future scientists: please stop using ominous names for things that could supplant humanity. Thanks in advance). After a lab incident, Franco brings Caesar home.
Of course you know where this is going: an incident causes the two to be separated; Caesar's new handlers are (of course) comically incompetent and cruel; and things get out of hand.
The human characters are largely culled from the Big Book O'Cliches. Franco is the earnest scientist, Frieda Pinto is his somehow-even-more-earnest girlfriend, Brian Cox and Todd Felton are the aforementioned shady ape handlers and David Oyelowo is the money-grubbing businessman.
Thankfully, the sequences involving Caesar (especially his rise among his fellow apes) are more interesting. Caesar is trapped between two worlds, and is eventually forced to make a choice. What he does changes the fates of two species.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes moves at a nice, brisk pace throughout (unlike, say, ). The film plays with the sense of tension moviegoers feel, and delivers solid action sequences.
There are some attempts to keep this movie in the Planet of the Apes canon, but some of the references to the first film feel a bit forced (you'll know it when you hear it). Planet of the Apes, though, was very much a film of its time (i.e. the height of the Cold War), and there was bound to be a disconnect between it and its modern-day prequel.
If you can stand knowing the ending (and knowing it's a downer) before you enter the theater, Rise of the Planet of the Apes delivers everything you'd want in a summer movie.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13.