To watch the Alien prequels — Prometheus (2012) and now Alien: Covenant — is to marvel at the changes in astronaut hiring practices that must have been implemented between the earlier chapters and the later ones.
The characters in Ridley Scott's 1979 original, set in 2124, are competent spacefarers who encounter difficult situations. But the people in Prometheus (set in 2093), and even more so in Covenant (set in 2104), are clumsy dumbasses who slip in puddles of blood, fire their weapons haphazardly, lean face-first into unknown organisms, ignore obvious warning signs, violate safety protocols, and are easily deceived by robots. Whatever reforms were made at the Weyland Corporation in the first two decades of the 22nd century resulted in much smarter (and, I must say, more charismatic) employees.
The new film, set a decade after Prometheus and again directed by Scott, begins aboard the colonization ship Covenant as it makes its way across the universe to a habitable planet designated Origae-6. In cryogenic sleep are 2,000 colonists and 15 crew members, while Walter (Michael Fassbender), a cyborg of the same design as David in Prometheus but upgraded to an American accent and a more opinionated personality, tends to the ship's needs. A malfunction causes the crew to wake up seven years early, except for the captain, who burns alive in his pod and is jettisoned into space.
So! We're off to a good start. The new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), is prickly and weak, uncertain of his authority. It is mentioned two or three times that he's a man of faith, but that fact never becomes relevant (one assumes there are deleted scenes). Investigating a rogue transmission, Oram and company find a planet near their current location that seems to be even better for colonization than Origae-6. Wouldn't hurt to send a landing party down there, see where the signal is coming from, check things out, get eaten by aliens, etc.
Most of the film, then, is set on this planet, a desolate, Earth-like place that's probably quite colorful when it's not being photographed in steel-gray tones. (The future, as usual, is desaturated.) The dead captain's widow, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), argues with the new captain about what they should do; fans of the Alien franchise will not be surprised when the correct opinion turns out to be the woman's. Other crew members, mostly interchangeable, include Karine (Carmen Ejogo), Upworth (Callie Hernandez), Ricks (Jussie Smollett), Lope (Demián Bechir) and Faris (Amy Seimetz). Danny McBride plays a pilot named Tennessee, the closest thing to comic relief that the drab film has to offer.
I'll let you discover how this is connected to the events of Prometheus, which ended with that movie's surviving female (Noomi Rapace) and David the polite British android commandeering an alien ship in search of life. Logic suggests that the character who cannot die is more likely to be in this part of the story than the one who can, so expect the two Michael Fassbenders to have differing views on a robot's place in society. You may also enjoy the moment when David plays a tune on the flute; it's the musical score from Prometheus, which I guess he saw somehow.
Frustratingly, the screenplay (credited to The Aviator writer John Logan and newcomer Dante Harper) has intriguing ideas that are swallowed up in the formulaic rehashing of past Alien imagery. For every five minutes of philosophical conversation about the origins of life, there are 15 minutes of morons poking at alien things, being infected by them and giving birth to CGI monsters that burst from their rib cages. Tense moments are rare and mild. No characters are exceptional. We've seen all of this before, and even if we hadn't, Scott keeps telegraphing what's going to happen next, so that almost none of the things that surprise the characters are surprises to us.
This would be a disappointment as a stand-alone sci-fi horror film. As an entry in the Alien franchise, it's almost an insult. ♦