The 21 Absolute Best Sci-Fi Films The 1990s Had To Offer
The 1990s may be known for the birth of Google, Beanie Babies, and the Macarena but it was also a decade loaded with fantastic sci-fi films. In fact, a strong argument could be made that the best science fiction flicks in cinematic history were released between 1990-1999.
It was during the '90s that special effects were finally blurring the line between fantasy and reality. After decades of mediocrity, special effects were truly special. The '90s were also a time when some of the biggest names in Hollywood (Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis) along with several auteur filmmakers routinely cranked out epic tales with completely original stories. You can find a little bit of everything in this decade's sci-fi Rolodex. Time travel, comedy, robots, aliens, dinosaurs, multi-passes--you name it, the '90s had it.
The 1990s were the age of the sci-fi blockbuster and cinephiles were the beneficiaries. With that in mind, here are our picks for the 20 best sci-fi films of the '90s. Did your favorite miss the cut or not rank as high as you'd like? Let us know in the comments below.
21. Demolition Man (1993)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Denis Leary
Director: Marco Brambilla
"He doesn't know how to use the three seashells!" While LAPD sergeant John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) may not be familiar with bathroom etiquette in the far off future of 2032, he's intimately familiar with fighting crime in this fish-out-of-time, sci-fi action film. When Spartan is released from his cryogenic prison to catch the deadly Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) 36 years after being jailed for a crime he didn't commit, he finds himself in an unrecognizable world where commercial jingles are top 10 hits, sex is had via virtual reality, and every restaurant is Taco Bell.
20. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd
Director: George Lucas
16 years after Return of the Jedi, Star Wars aficionados were at last able to see a new film from a beloved franchise. With its release came a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, the origin story of Anakin Skywalker, pod racing, the cool and calm Qui-Gon Jinn, the badassery of Darth Maul, and perhaps the greatest lightsaber battle in Star Wars history. And yes, Jar Jar Binks too. Although it initially received mixed reviews, two decades later Phantom Menace and the subsequent prequels have earned a greater appreciation from the Star Wars faithful.
19. Species (1995)
Starring: Natasha Henstridge, Michael Madsen, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, Forest Whitaker, Marg Helgenberger
Director: Roger Donaldson
Prior to Species, aliens usually came in two flavors: violent creatures looking to take over the Earth and benevolent beings hoping to guide humanity. Sci-fi fans weren't used to an alien femme fatale but that's exactly what they received while watching the genetically modified Sil (Natasha Henstridge) wreak havoc on unsuspecting Angelenos.
18. The Arrival (1996)
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Teri Polo, Richard Schiff, Ron Silver
Director: David Twohy
Are aliens the primary force creating climate change so they can kill off humanity? That's the premise of The Arrival, a unique, thrilling, and thought-provoking tale of a radio astronomer (Charlie Sheen) who uncovers a worldwide plot to extinguish life on Earth.
17. Men in Black (1997)
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Rip Torn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Linda Fiorentino
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith make for an odd couple but their unique pairing led to box office success with the biggest film of 1997. It also introduced the neuralyzer, the Noisy Cricket, and plenty of great comedic banter. A stellar sci-fi film, amazing special effects, and a creative story helped it evolve the genre.
16. Robocop 2 (1990)
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O’Herlihy, Tom Noonan
Director: Irvin Kershner
Mega corporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) can never seem to leave well enough alone. Once again, they're looking to build new robot cops but this time using the brains of convicted felons. Good thing Alex Murphy/Robocop is around to keep the peace.
15. Galaxy Quest (1999)
Starring: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, Daryl Mitchell
Director: Dean Parisot
Blending comedy with science fiction can be tricky but Galaxy Quest, a comedic homage to Star Trek, manages to pull it off brilliantly. It's so popular among Trekkies that it was voted the seventh greatest franchise film during the 2013 Star Trek convention in Las Vegas. Galaxy Quest also marks the film debuts of Justin Long and Rainn Wilson.
14. Timecop (1994)
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mia Sara, Ron Silver
Director: Peter Hyams
The Muscles from Brussels is known for his high kicks and groin stretching splits, and you'll see both in this film, but Timecop is a sci-fi film at its core. Featuring time travel, a love story, and a dirty politician, the film is a time-hopping romp.
13. Fire in the Sky (1993)
Starring: DB Sweeney, Robert Patrick, Peter Berg, James Garner
Director: Robert Lieberman
Fire in the Sky is based on the book, "The Walton Experience" by Travis Walton, portrayed in the film by DB Sweeney. It tells the story of how Walton and several of his fellow loggers were abducted by aliens while heading to work in Arizona. The screenplay by Tracy Torme (Sliders, Star Trek: The Next Generation) is riveting and has an X-Files vibe.
12. Cube (1997)
Starring: Nice de Boer, Nicky Guadagni, David Hewlett
Director: Vicenzo Natali
What would you do if you and four other people were trapped in a cube-shaped room? That's the initial premise behind Cube, which plays like a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone mixed with Survivor, if Jeff Probst was trying to kill you. This creepy and surreal film dives deep, making you ponder how much you can truly trust another person when life and death is on the line.
11. Independence Day (1996)
Starring: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell
Director: Roland Emmerich
Fireworks, hot dog eating contests, and watching Independence Day are all required Fourth of July activities. Action-packed set pieces, slick Will Smith one-liners ("Welcome to Earth."), the genius of Jeff Goldblum, and rousing pre-world saving battle speeches are par for the course in this epic. Aliens, epic aerial combat between conventional jets and space fighters, and jaw-dropping visuals make Independence Day a sci-fi classic.
10. Contact (1997)
Starring: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Angela Bassett
Director: Rober Zemeckis
If there's no life on other planets, it sure seems like an awful waste of space. That's what Dr. Ellie Solloway (Jodie Foster) believes in this film based on a story from noted astrophysicist Carl Sagan. If you've never heard of Occam's Razor, you'll learn about it from this film.
9. Virtuosity (1995)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Kelly Lynch
Director: Brett Leonard
When a computer program named SID (Russell Crowe), a compilation of a variety of serial killers' personalities, manages to escape its online existence by taking over an android body and goes on a killing spree, what do you do? Call in imprisoned former police officer Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington), of course.
8. Starship Troopers (1997)
Starring: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Initially panned by critics, over time director Paul Verhoeven's initial intentions were finally realized and Starship Troopers has been widely adored for what it is: a satire on fascism and war. Its story is told via grand special effects, cheesy dialogue and hyper self-awareness. The film practically mocks the book of the same name it's based on, written by Robert Heinlein.
7. Total Recall (1990)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, Rachel Ticotin
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) gets his ass to Mars in this science fiction film based on a short story by Philip K. Dick. Humans with crazy mutations, a complex plot, and plenty of intrigue will leave you wondering whether Quaid is really a secret agent or is actually working for the bad guys.
6. Tremors (1990)
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire
Director: Ron Underwood
Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) are two handymen barely making a living in the tiny town of Perfection, Nevada when they finally decide to leave for greener pastures. Unfortunately for them, the pair waited a day too late as a trio of enormous, worm-like monsters start grabbing residents from beneath the earth.
5. The Iron Giant (1999)
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick, Jr., Vin Diesel, Cloris Leachman, John Mahoney, Eli Marienthal
Director: Brad Bird
You are who you choose to be. It's a powerful message that Hogarth (Eli Marienthal) tells the Iron Giant (Vin Diesel), a massive robot, in the heart-warming, stirring, and surprisingly sophisticated animated film that touches on the complexities of human relationships, life, and death.
4. The Fifth Element (1997)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker
Director: Luc Besson
While we all keep waiting for the multi-pass to be a real thing, you can still enjoy the adventures of Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) as she flashes hers indiscriminately in The Fifth Element. It's a useful tool when saving the world from giant living fireballs, aggressive aliens, and corrupt businessmen.
3. The Matrix (1999)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving
Director: The Wachowskis
Blue or red pill. Which do you choose? When Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) offers Neo (Keanu Reeves) a chance to understand that his reality is actually a virtually one controlled by machines that have enslaved the planet, it's the start of a roller coaster first-time viewers of the film could never have predicted and ones that have seen it wish to experience time and again.
2. Jurassic Park (1993)
Starring: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Steven Spielberg
Jurassic Park would go on to become just as commercially viable as John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) predicted back in 1993. The film has led to a huge market of toys, backpacks, lunchboxes, an animated TV series, and six more films. However, none have been as steadfast and reliable as the original that reintroduced dinosaurs to the world.
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Edward Furlong
Director: James Cameron
An amazing technological achievement, Terminator 2's stunning special effects are matched by a thrilling story that takes expectations created by its successor and flips them on its head. Turning a human-killing Terminator from the future into a father figure that has to battle against a seemingly unbeatable opponent made of liquid metal is a joy to watch. The Terminator mythos being further explored would lead to opening up the world to a ton of other possibilities. More than 20 years later, Terminator 2 still holds up and is the best film in the franchise.