It went back to it's routes, making it a little more about the horror, but mixing in some wider world building and a heavy focus on character. It's clearly a conscious choice because they reference the original Alien up to and including a climax that involved running round an industrial spaceship.
Unlike Prometheus, and many horror films, when characters do dumb things in Alien: Covenant it's because of genuine character flaws. Their captain is not ready for command, getting a field promotion he never intended to receive. He stutters, he's unconfident, he doesn't know how to get the best out of people and he has a small persecution complex. He's not a bad person, but he's overcompensating by making rash, heavy-handed orders that piss people off and put the operation off-kilter. When they fail to quarantine properly it's because the doctor is losing her shit because Alien's are freaking scary.
Genuine character flaws (and beautiful cinematography) wouldn't be enough to elevate the film out of the horror swamp though. What does is that those character flaws are used as contrast to highlight the real heroic qualities the main character has. She too was not meant to command, but she wasn't given it and threw her weight around to make it important. When the situation needed her, she had the wherewithal to pull herself together and pull other people together to do what needs to be done. The captain flung her weaknesses in her face to try to establish his power. She covers his insecurities and builds him up with his faith when he's falling apart and she needs him to get back on track. I never really bought Naomi Rapace as the heir to Sigourney Weaver in Prometheus, mostly because her character was doing the same dumb stuff as everyone around her. Katherine Watson, of Fantastic Beasts fame, is a worth successor, backed by the strong writing.
So all that is saying, Alien: Covenant was written by people who knew what they were doing and did it well.
It's also fun that, after Ridley Scott filled his Alien films with evil androids and James Cameron and the other directors filled their Alien films with benevolent androids, Ridley Scott has embraced that and made Covenant a battle between the better and worse views of synthetics. It really works as a conflict.
So did I like Alien: Covenant?
The first truly good Alien sequel has just made it clear to me, that no matter how good they are, they're not going to be Alien. And by necessity, they're going to be filling in gaps that were better left blank in the original film. Alien was great because it was so unique. It felt expansive, but it was small. Every addition to the mythos cheapens that uniqueness and cleanness a little, even if the addition is good by itself.
Also, more personally, by making the film about David instead of Danni, the franchise has gone from celebrating a great character to revelling in a bad one. That doesn't make it bad, I think it's probably even an attraction for some people. However I don't personally really like films about bad bad guys. I always come back to the last chapter of the Hunger Games. Why do we tell these stories?
I needed that ending. Alien: Covenant doesn't have it. For lots of people that's no issue. For me it is.We have each other. And the book. We can make them understand in a way that will make them braver. But one day I’ll have to explain about my nightmares. Why they came. Why they won’t ever really go away.
I’ll tell them how I survive it. I’ll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away. That’s when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do. It’s like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years.
But there are much worse games to play.