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.
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)
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)
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)
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 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
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)
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)
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
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)
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)
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