Boiled down to the basics, the "Alien" movies are monster movie/slasher movie hybrids. Over the years, we've seen variations on this theme -- the 1979 original is a moody, sterling example of both genres, "Aliens" plays up the action elements, and "Prometheus" noodles out some philosophical ruminations on life, the universe, man's need for deities, and who put the bomp in the bomp-she-bomp -- but these films all boil down to terrified, hauntingly-lit human beings having gross encounters with those deadly, acid-blooded beasties.
"Alien Covenant" almost completely gives itself over to the scary stuff; director Ridley Scott dredges up a little of the "Prometheus" balloon juice (this film is a direct follow-up to that prequel), but he's more interested in an interstellar version of "Friday the 13th," with a respectable ensemble of actors as the camp counselors and various fanged slimeballs filling in for Jason Voorhees.
It's the mid-21st century, and the Covenant is on a seven-year journey from Earth to a distant colony planet, carrying 2,000 deep-sleeping colonizers as well as several drawers full of frozen embryos. An unforeseen snag forces the ship's computer (known as "Mother") and android Walter (Michael Fassbender) to wake up the crew for repairs. A calamity with one of the sleeping pods puts a reluctant Oram (Billy Crudup) in charge.
While spacewalking, Tennessee (Danny McBride) picks up a signal that seems to be coming from another earthling, emanating from a relatively nearby planet with a hospitable atmosphere. Second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston) argues that this confluence of events is too good to be true, but Oram insists they check out the situation, since taking the colony there would mean the crew wouldn't have to go back into the now-unreliable pods.
Eschewing both helmets and gloves, a landing party descends on the planet and starts indiscriminately stepping on things. And you can imagine where all this is going.
Screenwriters John Logan ("Skyfall") and Dante Harper ("The Delicate Art of the Rifle") rig up a few surprises along the way, from the relationships among the crew members to some call-backs to "Prometheus," but ultimately, "Alien Covenant" is engaging only in those tense moments where someone is about to have an alien go into them or come out of them, and in those jolts of horror in which slime and entrails explode across the otherwise somber cinematography of Dariusz Wolski ("The Martian").
The writers also perpetrate a twist of which the film seems inordinately proud, despite the fact that only the deeply credulous or cinematically inexperienced won't see it coming. And we're still in prequel territory here, it's not like the ending is going to be consequential or unpredictable.
At the same time, Scott isn't holding back on his trademark visual grandiosity - he reflects digital readouts across an astronaut's helmet like nobody else, and the art department gives the seemingly welcome planet a palpable sense of doomed grandeur. The Covenant doesn't have that resort-in-space flash that the ship in the recent "Passengers" had, but that's a fitting choice given that this voyage seems to be a more businesslike affair. (Jed Kurzel's powerful score calls upon some of the series' previous themes but emerges as its own unique creation.)
Waterston is a fine actress, and squeezes what she can out of a fairly minimal character, but Daniels is no Ripley, and Sigourney Weaver's iconic heroine continues to be missed here. The victims-in-waiting are a stellar bunch - the cast includes Demián Bachir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett and Amy Seimetz - but this is the kind of movie that's more about putting meat puppets in the way of the alien than about character development.
Still, the meat-puppet-consumption is pretty spectacular, and on a gutbucket genre-film level, "Alien Covenant" delivers when it delivers. As with so many of its monster-movie peers, however, there's just not much to it when the creature isn't preening for its close-up.