Ridley Scott’s dazzling “Alien: Covenant” is set ten years after the events of “Prometheus” and is a direct sequel to it, bridging the gap between that film and the original “Alien.” The story kicks off with an accident on board the Covenant, a colony ship headed for a paradise planet. The chosen captain, Jacob Branson (played in a one-scene flashback, puzzlingly, by James Franco) dies in hypersleep, leaving behind a grieving wife (terraforming expert Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston), a weak second-in-command named Oram (Billy Crudup) who’s now unfortunately seated in the captain’s chair, and 200 still-sleeping colonists and frozen embryos. Fassbender, who played the android David in “Prometheus,” is on board the Covenant playing Walter, a next generation version of the character whose emotions and personality have been dialed back a bit.
The awakened crewmembers are shaken, demoralized and still far from their destination, so when they hear a distress signal coming from a nearby planet that seems habitable, they decide to take a leap of faith and head there rather than go back into hypersleep and risk death again. And they all live happily ever after in a land of rainbows and unicorns. Just kidding! They end up trapped on a rainy planet filled with creatures that want to eat or impregnate them.
They’re momentarily rescued by David (Fassbender again), who settled there after the bloody climax of the first film and now has long hair, a Jedi robe with hood, a sullen and a grandiose demeanor, and lives in a spectacular ruin of an old city that was originally colonized by the Engineers from “Prometheus.” Daniels, who is determined to realize her late husband’s dream of building a cabin by the edge of a lake, went along with Oram’s plan to detour to this new world, and now feels trapped and hopeless. So do the other colonists, several of whom ingested spores that will gestate into xenomorphs.
If this sounds a bit like a variation on the plot of every “Alien” film ever, that’s because it is. The series’ repetitive structure is a feature, not a bug, as in the James Bond, “Star Wars” and Marvel franchises. If you don’t like them, you can complain that they recycle the same images and situations. But if you like them, you can compare them to sonatas or sonnets or three-chord pop songs, where part of the fun lies in seeing what variations the artists can bring while satisfying a rigid structure. The ritualized beats of the “Alien” movies offer many such scenarios, including initial landing on the dark planet, the first alien attack, the realization that a character that you thought was part of the team is actually treacherous, the escape from the complex that’s about to be wiped out, and the second ending that happens when you thought the story was over.