The worst thing that ever happened to Peter Jackson was getting ahold of big budgets. When that happened, the gifted, snot-nosed indie director of the brilliant gore comedy Braindead (Dead Alive to us Yanks) and the unnerving psychological thriller Heavenly Creatures all but instantly forgot every damned thing that he ever knew about fleet storytelling. Yes, yes, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is some kind of masterpiece of modern filmmaking, they tell me, but I've never particularly loved the films - for all their ambition and matinee-adventure spectacle, they are burdened by a profoundly graceless visual style and a sometimes clunky approach to adapting a narrative that was, in its novelistic form, more about the bits around the edges than the story itself. Then came his three-hour King Kong remake in 2005, with its intensely dull first hour of sheer, unadulterated padding, and a cornucopia of scenes that nearly all go on for half again longer than they should.

Now comes the director's tenth feature, depending on how exactly you count them, and by far his worst yet: an adaptation of Alice Sebold's celebrated novel The Lovely Bones that I have not read, but I am reasonably confident that it's not possible for it to be as garish as Jackson's interpretation of the material. Much as I wish that somebody had sat the director down during the Two Towers shoot and explained that just because you have a helicopter, that doesn't mean that you have to use helicopter shots, so it is clear in this film that nobody in a position to do so took him by the shoulder and whispered, "Peter, just because you can put in a massive CGI dreamscape..."

The film takes place in two locations: a small Pennsylvania community where a 14-year-old girl named Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is murdered in early December, 1973, and "The In-Between", a place that isn't Earth, nor Heaven, but some strange and magical place where Susie finds herself surrounded by symbolic fantastic landscapes as she watches her family mourn her as the years turn on, while her murderer continues to live his twitchy life just down the street. In its regular shifting between a serial killer thriller set in a desperately unexceptional suburban neighborhood, and an anything-goes world of impossible landscapes and colorful explosions, The Lovely Bones recalls Tarsem Singh's The Cell, though it is the differences rather than the similarities that are telling. In both of Tarsem's movies (The Fall is the other), the incredible visions on display are all the more incredible for having the tang of reality: as much as possible, they use practical effects -and it is often not possible, but this is the mark of great CGI use, to create only that which cannot be created otherwise. Jackson's film makes CGI its whore: a big, glitzy, gaudy whore. A shinier and hollower realm of fantastic possibilities can hardly be imagined; in the same season that James Cameron's Avatar made me recant all sorts of long-held beliefs about mo-cap and 3D, it is incredibly satisfying to have The Lovely Bones come along and remind us of how awful it is to live in an age when computers' ability to depict anything in a movie is usually married to withered, limited imaginations. And to accuse Peter Jackson of having a withered, limited imagination gives me absolutely no pleasure at all.

If Susie's afterlife is marred by a certain blandness of conception, the world she leaves behind is a perfectly pedestrian vision of the 1970s captured in banally warm tones by Jackson and Andrew Lesnie, a cinematographer whose single trick, as revealed in so many films stretching back so many years now, is to make everything he shoots look like a clothing catalog: outdoor-wear in The Lord of the Rings, the Sears Roebuck casual collection here. It's pretty, but just a bit on the wrong side of harshly lit, and somehow it seems airbrushed despite the fact that you can't airbrush motion picture footage. As to what happens when Lesnie gets his hands on the RED, to shoot the bits of the fantasy scenes that are actually live-action... ah, how good it is to have a movie to reconfirm all of my bigoted feelings about video at the same time that it reminds me of the evils of CGI!

There's a human element inside all of this slack style, but it's not really all that much more interesting than the run-of-the-mill production design. The one outstanding choice made in the whole filmmaking process was to cast Ronan as Susie: having already proved herself a great actress in Atonement, she is given frustratingly little to "do" in The Lovely Bones, but she looks absolutely right for the part, with her piercing, eerily blue eyes, and porcelain skin that is given a deathly sheen by Lesnie's camera. So that's a significant mark in the film's favor. And so, I guess, is Stanely Tucci's clammy performance as George Harvey, the serial killer and (presumably, but this is nicely PG-13) raper of girls, a nicely unhinged and blustery performance from a generally under-adored actor; although I think that it might have been nice if he wasn't always wearing a giant hat with "I AM A MURDERING PERVERT" written on it in neon letters. Or, at least, the hair and makeup equivalent thereto.

Other than those two individuals, everything about the drama of The Lovely Bones is bad-to-wretched: Mark Wahlberg's needlessly fussy performance as Susie's dad and Rachel Weisz's absolutely impersonal performance as her mom; Susan Sarandon's hugely embarrassing "crazy drunken earth mother turn" as Susie's maternal grandma. Even the very mechanics of the plot simply don't work: there's nothing remotely interesting about what happens to Susie in the In-Between, except that it's allegedly pretty, and while there are theoretically interesting things happening to her family, the grinding of the crime thriller angle makes everything else fall by the wayside. Like I said, I haven't read Sebold's novel, but everything about the movie leads me to belief that it might be pretty interesting and entirely unfilmable.

Jackson's directorial abilities have failed him entirely: the film is slackly paced and maddeningly edited, with a hideous Brian Eno score that at least entertains through its weirdness. And there is an unaccountably bad montage set to The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" that absolutely does not feel like it could conceivably be the work of a filmmaker that I have ever respected, let alone love. And though I have already said it, let me get just one more dig in at the visual language, which confuses perfunctory computer animation with visionary elegance. There is, so far as I can make it out, no reason on earth for The Lovely Bones to exist: it is not emotionally meaningful, nor lovely, nor is the plot sufficiently twisty to be diverting. It just sucks, even by the standards of a damnably unexciting Oscar season.