In many circumstances, I’m not a fan of CGI. CGI effects generally have too slick of a look for me. Too pristine, no grunge. And sometimes they lack adherence to physics. I’m not interested in the new Hulk movie mainly because its CGIed anti-hero looks too…cartoony…to me.
I agree that subtle effects are awesome (David Fincher returned San Francisco’s freeways to their pre-1989 state in Zodiac and you probably didn’t notice). But some special effects are meant to be a spectacle, and part of the reason that noticeable effects aren’t as impressive is that we’re used to seeing them. Way back when, the T2000 and the creature from The Abyss were pretty awesome because they had never been seen before. James Cameron sinking the Titanic had never been done on that scale. Comic-book movies can be made now (and are being made in profitable droves) because they needed the effects technology to pull them off. It’s true, CGI can be over-used. The Star Wars Parts 1-3 are probably a good example of that. The Lord of the Rings films are a good example of CGI being used well (for the most part). Comic-book movies are going to tend to over-use it by their very frenetic clash-of-Titans nature.
It would seem that the combination of CGI and practical effects is the way to go, and Donaldson is blind to a whole genre that takes advantage of whatever works to get the job done: the horror genre (and it’s kin). Pan’s Labyrinth is gorgeous and full effects that are seamless within the movie. It wasn’t even nominated in the visual effects category, though it won for cinematography, art direction, and makeup. The Saw franchise uses multiple techniques to pull off the gruesome things that occur, but again, it’s not seen as an “effects” movie. Horror movies rarely are, even though they’re all about tricking the audience through visual effects into believing that something has happened that obviously hasn’t. Interesting that two of the bigger directors/producers that are pushing effect technology, Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson, have roots in horror.