On 6 August, Roger Ebert posted a jeremiad decrying the rising idiocy of film audiences. On 7 August, A.O. Scott published a less-alarmed but even more dejected essay on the same topic. It is quite unlikely that either of these fine critics was responding directly to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, a film that opened on the 7th without screening for critics beforehand, but the timing seems suspiciously appropriate. Certainly, G.I. Joe - whose subtitle indicates the naked desire to make it into a goddamn franchise, and whose $55 million opening weekend is somehow "disappointing" enough that a sequel actually isn't a foregone conclusion - is the kind of movie that could inspire this very same kind of breast-beating and dolor; it is a mightily stupid sci-fi action epic on the model that could only have been achieved in the age of ready CGI, since it is much easier to blow up a gigantic underwater military base beneath the polar ice on a computer than it is to rig a modest-sized airplane to explode in real life.

I am not however interested in writing such a eulogy for smart American filmmaking and smart American filmgoers. Both of those men did a better job than I could, and frankly I sort of feel like if I got that angry at G.I. Joe, I'd be letting it win. Anyway, it's not an angering film; it's honestly sort of depressing. Sitting there in the dark, watching as one animated objected careened into another, over and over again, for 118 minutes; enjoying not one frame of the experience in any sort of active manner; it is the kind of film that you watch with the leaden complacency of a dumb animal, ready to forget it within minutes of leaving. Certainly, none of the people in the crowded auditorium where I saw the film seemed to be any more actively entertained than I was: the film unspooled to a deathly silent roomful of passive receptacles, with some scattered clapping at the finale. If this is what having fun looks like, then I'm glad I never do it.

Anyway, I promised I wouldn't go there. So let me get back to G.I. Joe. I could synopsise the plot, but it doesn't matter. The film doesn't even have the same pretensions towards storytelling as the 1980s cartoon series, nor the same level of character development. Which says pretty damning things about it. The scenario - calling it a story is needlessly kind - is that the very best soldiers from around the world have been gathered into an elite fighting force known as G.I. Joe (so much for "real American heroes"), and they're facing off against a Scottish weapons dealer with an eye for world domination. Think James Bond plus The Guns of Navarone, and you are thinking far too interesting. Think instead, James Bond plus getting hit in the face with dirty socks. Along the way, the film manages to spend a brief time in 1641 France, features many violations of its own internal logic, and has the damned temerity to open its main action with a card reading "In the not too distant future", a phrase with the kind of associations that you'd just as soon not call up if there's even a chance that you're movie is bad enough to mock. Incidentally, the Cobra that is rising, according the title, is not revealed until about 40 seconds from the end of the film, so hopefully you'll remember from the cartoon that Cobra is an international terrorist organisation led by a fierce man with a shiny mask.

In the film, some things are blown up, and some things are with with nanite - I'm sorry, "nanomite" - missiles, causing them to melt. At one point, there is a car chase in Paris in which dozens and dozens of cars are destroyed, while two men in suits that make them run fast are composited in. While I will not be so coy as to pretend that all this is cut together in such a chaotic manner that it leaves it impossible to follow the action, it is certainly nevertheless the case that the action is, at the least, much harder to follow than it should be. At any rate, the fight choreography is generally even more confused than in Transformers, either one, and that is certainly not a very nice comparison to make, though G.I. Joe deserves it; in every conceivable way, it feels very much like Transformers' kid brother. Except that in place of Michael Bay, who for all his sins is something like a mad poet of stupidly kinetic action, G.I. Joe has Stephen Sommers, a man with a particular gift for crafting inelegant, clamorous action sequences that rely to a morally offensive degree on palpably fake CGI. This is a man whose best film - his best - is the ramshackle 1999 remake of The Mummy, and whose worst... well, G.I. Joe may actually take that title, but it's been some years since I saw Van Helsing, and I remember that it positively reeked.

The over-stuffed cast playing various parts on either side of the battle includes many faces both recognisable and less-so; the lead, generally speaking, is Channing Tatum, everyone's favorite slab of pretty, desperately untalented beef. He's supported by several people, including a healthy clutch of genuinely good actors who really have no excuse: particularly Dennis Quaid, Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing a transparent rip-off of Darth Vader; he at least gets a pass on account of having grown up at the right time to have played with the toys and watched the show when they were new (so did Tatum for that matter, but since I don't respect him, I'm not interested in making excuses for him). But nothing can magically make anybody give a good performance in the face of this asinine screenplay, full of clumsy dialogue and "cute" references to G.I. Joe's iconic past, including a stoned Marlon Wayans refer to Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as having lifelike hair and a kung-fu grip.

This is an excruciating movie, the kind that I'd dearly love to have been able to sleep my way through except that the constant booming kept me awake. Things keep happening, and while they happen for reasons that are given some kind of motivation in the screenplay, the real reason is: "because we can, and it looks cool." Except that there are movies that look cool and there are movies where the computer gets in the way of it looking like anything but a particularly high-class video game. Though watching someone playing a video game is generally more pleasurable, since you're probably watching a friend, and you'd like them to win, which gives you more of a rooting interest than G.I. Joe sees fit to provide.

The only real question: which is the more soul-crushing exercise in mindless, free-form anarchy and violations against the century-long history of filmmaking: this, or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? Both are shrill and loud and unpleasant, both are a bit like having pieces of metal thrown at your face in a wind tunnel; but G.I. Joe is a full half-hour shorter, and thus must settle for only being the second worst film of the summer.