Ms. with “War of the Worlds” and could

Ms. Adams is at her best in these scenes of confrontation—Louise’s fear is almost palpable, so is her courage and here’s to a movie with a supersmart heroine—but the marvelous atmospherics alternate with devices from a list of genre productions that only begins with “War of the Worlds” and could well extend to “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.” Government and military figures are severely dumbed-down: Mr. Whitaker’s character is particularly dense. Nations are predictably ready to make war on the invaders if Louise can’t crack the aliens’ code. (Did I hear correctly that Russia and Sudan were ready to follow China’s aggressive lead? They couldn’t have said Sudan.)The production, which was designed by Patrice Vermette, is elegant in its minimalism, though the interior of the spaceship looks, noncommittally, like a cavernous sound stage with striated concrete walls. And the abstract nature of the theme is intensified to distraction by the usual assortment of computer displays, and TV screens that bring in news of what’s happening around the world. We’ve become so accustomed to seeing action play out on flat panels, both in movies and in what passes for real life, that it’s easy to forget how dramatically flat and conventional such scenes can be.It isn’t surprising that “Arrival” gets tech-heavy from time to time, given the provenance of the script. Mr. Chiang, the source of the original story, is, among many other things, a computer scientist and a technical writer, and Mr. Heisserer has written other sci-fi features. And its earliest signalings of plot and secondary character are inevitable, given the increasing challenges of attracting a theatrical audience, and the shortening of attention spans. Gone are the days when movie lovers were glad to sit still for more than two hours while Mr. Spielberg’s film developed its episodic plot. What’s remarkable about “Arrival” is its contemplative core—and, of course, Ms. Adams’s star performance, which is no less impassioned for being self-effacing. This film is very much a product of its time—open to other dimensions of existence, though coolly observant in the process. I enjoyed it, and respect it, but I can’t pretend I didn’t miss the grandeur of that long-ago close encounter.