Top 10 Science-Fiction Films of the 1990s

Science-fiction in the 1990s was a mix of dystopian societies, self-reflexive parodies, high-concept action, good old horror, and a smattering of sequels. Quite an eclectic mix. During ten years we went from the serious (Strange Days, Contact, 12 Monkeys) to the ridiculous (Galaxy Quest, Space Truckers, Fortress) but there was always an element of quality on show. Even Fortress, the futuristic tale of terror prisons, one of the most memorable films I saw growing up, had a lot going for it. Christopher Lambert isn’t known for too many worthwhile films but Fortress is the good sort of trash – easy on the eye, straight-forward entertainment.

Rutger Hauer is another actor regarded for his straight-to-video Friday night rentals but I was, and still am, impressed by his 1992 film Split Second. This little seen film is probably too close a take on other well known science-fiction films to be considered anything other than a unoriginal re-imagining but it has its pluses. It’s suitably gory, well-paced, stylish and puts a nicely premised whodunit story in the post-apocalyptic setting of a London flooded by the river Thames. It’s Murder on the Orient Express meets Predator. Alas, it doesn’t make the list because its minimal budget can be seen in lacklustre staging from time to time, but its well worth seeing.

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Indeed, science-fiction horror produced some brilliantly thrilling films from Predator 2 to Space Truckers to Event Horizon. All these films owe a debt of gratitude to Alien and Aliens but even in a lesser form the formula works and the genre gave us some of the decade’s most memorable films. One of which appears on this list – Alien 3. David Fincher might have disowned the film but if he doesn’t want it I’ll gladly take it. Unfairly panned on its release, Alien 3 has grown in stature and now, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated modern films in the science-fiction genre. The concept of a deadly alien running riot in a prison colony is one that pits the bad against the even worse. And our intrepid protagonist – the unluckiest woman in cinema history – Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is again caught in the middle.

Two actors – both at the top of their game – played major parts in the genre. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis both appear in our top 10 twice and that’s not surprising. These two iconic action stars were at the height of their Hollywood powers in the 1990s and they top our list with two classy performances – one as a robot, the other as a disgruntled cab driver. Can you guess which films I’m talking about?

What are your favourite science-fiction films of the 1990s?

10. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer, 1991)

star trek, undiscovered country, science fiction 1990s,

It is true that the Star Trek films are alternately good and bad. The first film was boring, the second film was great, the third film was lacklustre, the fourth was the funniest entry in the series, the fifth was the worst film many people have ever seen, and the sixth, this film right here, redressed the balance once again. The Undiscovered Country is one of the best entries in the Star Trek feature film franchise, creating a metaphor for the end of the cold war by suggesting old enemies – the Federation and Klingon Empire – should enact a truce. This was the last Star Trek film to feature the entire original cast of the television series.

9. Independence Day (Emmerich, 1996)

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The big summer blockbuster of 1996 remains one of the most fun and exciting action-adventures of the 1990s. Independence Day is close encounters with aliens that have one thing on their minds – human destruction. These E.T.’s aren’t here to play nice. The world retaliates with all its military power but it does no good. The fate of the human race falls at the feet of ace fighter pilot Will Smith and computer specialist Jeff Goldblum. It’s at times funny, at other times highly exciting, and features some great special-effects.

8. 12 Monkeys (Gilliam, 1995)

12 monkeys, top 10 science fiction 1990s

Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film is a twisty thriller set in a post-apocalyptic future. Bruce Willis’ James Cole, a convicted criminal, allows scientists to send him to the past to collect samples of a deadly virus to bring back to the future. The virus forced the surviving population underground and it is believed that if Cole can find the original virus, it can be cured. He is captured in the past and sent to a mental institution where he meets fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Eventually escaping back to the future, he is told that Goines is the one who started spreading the virus, and he becomes his target as he again returns to the past but this time a few years later. It’s a film that requires more than one viewing but it’s a visual treat in the best Gilliam tradition, and it’ll have you hooked from start to finish.

7. Galaxy Quest (Parisot, 1999)

galaxy quest, film, comedy science fiction

Galaxy Quest is one of the best comedies of 1999, and one of the best science-fiction films of the decade thanks to its sprightly script from David Howard and Rob Gordon, some smart casting choices, and a story that both pokes fun at the likes of Star Trek while celebrating the camp appeal of trashy sci-fi TV. The story concerns a bunch of aging actors who were once stars of a Star Trek-like television series that was cancelled and now their star appeal is only found at fan conventions. Amusingly, a race of aliens receive broadcasts of the show and believe the actors are performing real life heroics against intergalactic foe. Inviting them aboard their spaceship, they set these has-beens the real task of saving their alien race from an evil tormentor. Should the actors reveal their secret? Or can we enjoy their unwitting entry into real life or death situations a little longer? Thankfully, director Parisot milks the situation for all its worth, prompting a funny, original comedy that is also frequently exciting with some well orchestrated action set-pieces.

6. Alien 3 (Fincher, 1992)read our full review

alien 3, sigourney weaver, film, science fiction 1990s,

David Fincher’s film was widely criticised on its release, not least by the director himself who appeared to disown the film. Admittedly, it isn’t near the cinematic heights of the first two Alien movies. However, in retrospect, Alien 3 is a different film, and in its own right, a very good one. You also only have to compare it to the fourth Alien movie and the other incarnations of the series to realise Fincher’s film is actually a terrifically taut and interesting addition to the series. It boasts another strong performance from Sigourney Weaver, and in its revamped new cut, released in 2003 in conjunction with the special DVD set, it gets closer to Fincher’s original vision. That said, both versions of the film are worthy of viewing, but the new cut does address some plot holes evident in the original theatrical release.

5. Strange Days (Bigelow, 1995)

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Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days is set in an alternate 1999, where police brutality and political corruption is rife and a new, mind-control drug has entered social circles. The device, known as a SQUID, is real-life recordings of people’s actual experiences delivered to secondary participants through a device that interacts directly with the brain. When Ralph Fiennes’ Lenny Nero, a dealer of SQUID, finds himself a snuff memory of a girl’s violent rape and murder, he is suddenly part of a bigger plot concerning the police cover-up of the murder of an outspoken celebrity.

4. Total Recall (Verhoeven, 1990)

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Dark, violent, sexy – apt words for Paul Verhoeven’s Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring adventure on Mars. Schwarzenegger is an average Joe with a 9 to 5 job and beautiful wife played by Sharon Stone. When he visits a travel organisation that instead of providing great holidays implant the memories of a magical trip away in the head of the customer, he discovers that not all is as it seems. The mind implant conjures up memories of his own life, memories he did not know he had. Suddenly, his life is in danger and someone is trying to kill him. From earth he escapes to Mars where he feels compelled to travel to, believing he might shed some light on his situation. But now even his wife is out to kill him, and there’s no one left to trust.

Total Recall is one of Arnie’s best films after The Terminator and Terminator 2. He’s perfectly suited to the role of Doug Quaid, a tough but clueless guy who is suddenly thrust into a frenetic life or death situation. Verhoeven’s film is fast-paced and both the sequences in a futuristic earth setting and those on Mars are brilliantly designed and orchestrated. There’s also a lot of fun to be had including Sharon Stone’s double-crossing wife, Michael Ironside’s nasty villain, and Ronny Cox as the film’s chief bad guy.

3. Contact (Zemeckis, 1997)See also Top 10 Robert Zemeckis Films

contact, jodie foster, robert zemeckis, science fiction 1990s,

Based on the Carl Sagan novel, Robert Zemeckis’ science-fiction drama about first contact with extraterrestrials takes an original look at possible close encounters. Jodie Foster delivers a powerful performance as Ellie Arroway, an enthusiastic scientist with the SETI programme (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), who happens across an alien signal from outer space that is believed to describe plans for building some kind of machine. The film takes a serious approach to its story, mixing the ideological and religious relevance of such a discovery with the political and media circus that surrounds the possibility of alien contact.

Arroway’s story is one that begins under the weight of science’s leading academics condemning her work as a waste of time and money. When she eventually makes the discovery she is cast aside by those same people who want the glory for themselves. Matthew McConaughey is also strong in the role of Palmer Joss. Joss is a Christian philosopher, who questions Arroway’s belief in God and whether, in a country where such a large percentage of people practice a religious faith, her lack of religion could have a wider impact if she were chosen as earth’s representative to an alien race. Conversely, as a woman of science, she is driven by the search for truth. Like her search for the truth of alien life forms, her search for the truth in God is no less relevant. It makes for an interesting and original science-fiction film where the aliens themselves are less of a concern than the human reaction to their possible existence.

2. The Fifth Element (Besson, 1997)

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In 1997 Luc Besson was on a roll. His last film, 1994’s Leon, was critically acclaimed and widely loved by audiences for its slick, stylised action sequences and unique protagonists. The story of a contract killer and an orphaned child being thrust together and forming an unlikely bond amidst serious carnage produced a wonderfully dark yet immersive film that glued you to the screen from minute one.

The Fifth Element was, in many ways, the tough second album. Besson had produced and directed several films previously but the world had only just sat up and taken notice. The Fifth Element more than satisfied the anticipation. Bruce Willis is brilliant as cab driver Korben Dallas in this futuristic action-adventure. He inadvertently finds the earth’s saviour in his taxi and gets thrust into an outer space adventure with sadistic bad guy Gary Oldman on his tail.

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991)

terminator 2, film, james cameron,

The self-professed King of the World, James Cameron, was indeed king of the world when Terminator 2 arrived to smash box office records and thrill fans of the original film. The sequel was everything we wanted it to be: bigger, bolder, apocalyptic and suitably grandiose. It was even better that Arnold Schwarzenegger switched allegiances and sided with the good guys. Cameron knows how to makes sequels (witness the greatest of them all – 1986’s Aliens) and Terminator 2 deserves all the plaudits thrown at it. A thrilling action-adventure that brilliantly continued the story of humans against machines.

Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens

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See Also:
Top 10 1980s Science-Fiction Films for Children
Top 10 Science-Fiction Horror Films
Science’s View: Scientists reveal their top 10 Science-Fiction Films

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Univarn Reply

    It’s a long time since I’ve seen a top 10 Science Fiction film list made post ’99 without The Matrix listed on it (which definitely peaks my interest). For my money I’d throw the first Men in Black out there as an outside shot for the #10 slot, however MiB2 really took all the wind out of that series. I haven’t seen Undiscovered Country so I’d probably supplant that with First Contact for some Star Trek love.

    If I didn’t have to watch Gattaca every year of high school (since my teachers had no creativity) I’d probably love it more than I do.

    However there’s no disagreement on T2. That movie was made to be loved, cherished, and hallowed. The Fifth Element is also good camp fun all around. Independence Day was a childhood favorite, and still is from time to time.

  2. Avatar
    James Blake Ewing Reply

    No Dark City?!?! I hope it’s because you haven’t seen it yet.

    That being said, I love the top 3 as they are all among my favorite sci-fi film ever.

  3. Avatar
    Encore Entertainment Reply

    I’m kind of shocked (okay, fine, VERY shocked) that there’s no Gattaca on here. That’s probably my favourite sci-fi flick of the last twenty years. Ethan Hawke and Jude Law are too good a combo for me to pass up.

    Strange Days sounds worthy, I should check that out – if only because Ralph Fiennes is a BAMF.

  4. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    I did enjoy Strange Days, but I doubt it’d be on my list. Just too weird to warrant a best of the decade inclusion… I would go with Encore above about Gattaca, but the lack of The Matrix (released in 1999) can’t be overlooked!!

  5. Avatar
    Novroz Reply

    What? no Matrix?

  6. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    Love The Matrix and it was hard to leave it off (but I suppose too easy to put it in). I knew my top 3 straight away and The Matrix wasn’t in it. In trying to highlight some other really worthy sci-fi’s (some largely underrated in my opinion) there was no space left for The Matrix.

    I felt Galaxy Quest deserved a place because it was fresh and funny, Alien 3 is hugely underrated, and Star Trek VI is one of the best of the franchise. Independence Day is a take it or leave type of film – The Matrix is the better film but ID is one of my rainy day movies and the one I’d pick to watch more often. It’s easy on the eye and the mind.

    I’m not a big fan of Gattaca although I do like the concept of the film. Dark City is cool – again, I really like the concept. Both would make a top 20 list.

  7. Avatar
    Aiden R. Reply

    BIG points for Total Recall and Galaxy Quest (what an under-appreciated comedy). Still need to see Strange Days myself. Need to see a lot of Bigelow’s stuff for that matter. What the hell do I do with my time?

  8. Avatar
    Luke Reply

    Oh my god – bless you for including Contact! What an underrated gem of a movie! Always been a fan. Now, where would Men in Black and Death Becomes Her rank here, hm?

  9. Avatar
    rtm Reply

    I need to watch Strange Days! My friend Vince likes that one a lot and talked about that often… and that photo of Mr. Fiennes is so striking! 🙂 Nice list, Dan, glad you included Galaxy Quest, LOVE that movie. And Independence Day was good fun I agree, lots of memorable and funny scenes that’s worth watching over and over.

  10. Avatar
    Marc Reply

    As Aiden pointed out I must say I’m happy to see Total Recall and Galaxy Quest here. LOVE those movies.

    Also, love that you put The Fifth Element so high but I for one think it’s better than T2. Contact pisses me off (love how they briefly spoofed in South Park) but your list is well crafted even if I’m not a big fan of 12 Monkeys.

    Great effort Dan!

  11. Avatar
    Richard Reply

    Now you’re talking. I’m so glad you put Galaxy Quest in there. It always seemed a little underrated to me. Tim Allen does an uncanny William Shatner at times, and it manages to mock its target with total respect and affection. Not so easy to do. I totally agree with you n Contact, too. Love that movie.

    I hated The Fifth Element, and I can’t say Alien 3 has grown in stature for me. And Fincher is my favourite director. I was also surpised that Matrix didn’t make it, and I would have put The City of Lost Children and Jurassic Park in there. Come on, Jurassic Park, man. 🙂

    By the way, I’m blogging from my new site now. Celluloid Zombie. Come take a look. 🙂

  12. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    @ Richard – ohh, the City Of Lost Children.. man, I forgot about that. That is SUCH an awesome film!!!

  13. Avatar
    Olive Reply

    Gotta agree with rtm on Strange Days; I haven’t seen it either, but that photo of Fieness is rather interesting! Love, love T2, it’s one of my fave movies of the 90s.

  14. Avatar
    Olive Reply

    Ahem: correction “Fiennes” sorry!

  15. Avatar
    Katie Reply

    I’m glad Twelve Monkeys made it into your top 10, it’s so often overlooked. You’re right it does take a couple of gos but it’s definitely worth it. Probably the best of Gilliam.
    The Fifth Element is a pretty wicked film too.

  16. Avatar
    Anna Reply

    Great list, there’s a couple I’ve missed, cheers !

  17. Avatar
    Andy Reply

    Great list, I have a similar one in draft form that I will publish in the new year. Two movies to pick out of your list, The Undiscovered Country is my favourite Star Trek movie and Strange Days never gets the respect it deserves.

  18. Avatar
    Fitz Reply

    T2! Yes! Excellent #1 selection. I respect that you went away from the mainstream with these picks.

  19. Avatar
    Sir Phobos Reply

    I just added Split Second to my queue. Sounds awesome.

    You and I will disagree about Star Trek, it seems. I’m storing that away for future reference.

    I actually just got Contact on blu-ray over the weekend. I haven’t watched it in years, but I remember liking it quite a bit. I’m pretty excited to see it again.

    The only one I disagree with on the list is Independence Day. I just don’t think it’s THAT good. It’s entertaining for what it is, but it wouldn’t be on any top 10 list of mine.

    I haven’t seen Strange Days, so I’ll get on that pretty soon as well.

  20. Avatar
    John Blair Reply

    Glad to see Contact high on the list, great film. One of my favourite sci-fi films along with Close Encounters, Blade Runner, The Day The Earth Stood Still (the 1951 original) and Forbidden Planet.

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