Covenant continues down its path in introducing characters in the present day of the film. A colonization mission has been sent into deep space. Run by Walter (Fassbender again, a later version of David) while the crew is in stasis, he is forced to wake up the crew after a neutrino burst damages the ship. The captain is stuck in his pod due to a malfunction and it incinerates him, leaving first mate Chris Oram (Billy Crudup) in charge. Oram is a religious man whose belief that he was passed over due to his convictions places a chip on his shoulder. A radio signal emanating from a nearby planet provides Oram with a way to establish his authority, and he commands that the crew investigate over their objections, particularly from second-in-command Janet Daniels (Katherine Waterston), herself newly widowed after the captain's death. Despite the random neutrino burst that woke them and the random placement of crew members in stasis pods that killed the old captain and put him in charge, Oram insists that he doesn't believe in chance, and this nonsensical motivation puts the film in motion.
Once landed, the crew finds a lush, forested planet that seems to be devoid of life. While investigating, one of the crew disturbs some black pods and rousts the tiny particles inside, particles that spring to life and ride gusts of air into his ear. He, and another crew member similarly infected, quickly deteriorate until vicious creatures are bursting from their bodies, sending the team into disarray and crippling their escape craft. Left stranded while the main ship orbits above, David, last seen as a disembodied head leaving the planet that Prometheus took place on, rescues them from an alien attack, and allows them to hole up in his pyramid while they try and figure out their next move. In the meantime, the aliens are growing to deadly maturity and David plainly has ulterior motives.
Covenant is weighed down by Prometheus every step of the way. The mythology is overwrought and unnecessary, characters function as archetypes instead of people, and the scope is completely out of whack with the elemental strengths of the franchise's roots. Prometheus had its moments, but the structure was too flimsy in total. Covenant's on firmer ground once the body horror begins. No one on the crew is saddled with a mission to find an origin. They just want to get off the planet. This slimming down allows Scott to do what he does best; construct breathtaking spectacle. Sometimes, like in Blade Runner or Kingdom of Heaven (director's cut, obviously) or The Martian, that breath is being taken out of awe, and there's some of that here thanks to the incredible shots of his DP Dariusz Wolski. Other times, like in Alien, that breath is being taken out of apprehension, and he is able to get back to those roots in several set pieces. When the crew faces off against the aliens, there are few directors more able to communicate the panicked exhilaration such a scenario might engender.
Covenant also gets more memorable work from its cast than Prometheus. Fassbender was the best part of Prometheus by a wide margin, despite the inscrutable actions his character took. His motivations are still muddy in Covenant, but he remains impossibly good as David and Walter. Both robotic in their speech but hardly wooden, they share scenes together that are hilariously homoerotic. Fassbender gives two performances with polar opposite motivations, and he's great fun to watch in both. Waterston ably steps into the shoes of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley as a character who can be terrified while being brave. She often has tears streaming down her face while stepping courageously into danger. Danny McBride plays against type as the pilot, shirking his unearned arrogance for a low-key competence, while Amy Seimetz is tremendously watchable in the several modes the film puts her through.
The faults of Covenant are real and irksome, but I enjoy this franchise too much to outwardly dislike a film that does eventually give me what I came for: xenomorphs slinking around the darkness and hissing at their victims. I can overlook a lot when such a potent horror staple is present. The baffling decision to have all of the crew be paired up in romantic relationships, the pretensions to depth, the characters acting unlike military or scientific people would seem to act, I can put most of it aside if there are smart people making the best possible decisions to evade the worst possible creature. In bits and pieces, Scott is still plainly capable of doing the kind of work that made his name as a master of genre filmmaking. If only he could jettison those other bits and pieces floating around Covenant out the airlock, I could unreservedly embrace his latest. C+