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Now that's what we call a close encounter! Were the 1990s the best time for science fiction? We'd be inclined to say yes.
Perhaps we can chalk that up to Hollywood's transition into a new age of novel computer-generated effects blended with old school puppetry and makeup methodologies. The result is something magical — an ephemeral middle ground between worlds both real and imagined.
Moreover, the decade represented a time when filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Paul Verhoeven, Tim Burton, and Joe Dante were at the peak of their entertainment dynasties. The sheer amount of creative risks many these films display have been lost in today's ever-deepening rut of reboots, sequels, reimaginings, rehashes, and other lazy revisitations of past-their-prime properties.
Without further ado, here are 15 science fiction movies that defined and redefined cinema throughout the '90s...
1. Back to the Future Part III (1990)
The trilogy capper to Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s indelible time travel trilogy has always lived in the shadow of its two predecessors. But like we’ve said many times on this website, Back to the Future Part III is very much worthy of your love and admiration. The way in which it seamlessly blends genres while wrapping up the emotional arcs for its two main characters is nothing short of magical. Plus, it was one of the rare pre-MCU films to be teased during the end credits of the movie that came before it. We'd say the term "trail blazer" fits here, especially since Part III takes place in the pioneering days of the Old West.
Back to the Future Part III is available to rent or purchase via YouTube Movies
2. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Billy Peltzer and Gizmo take Manhattan in this off-the-walls sequel that ramps up the Mogwai chaos to an 11. Having the noxious little critters multiply in Kingston Falls is one thing, but what happens when they threaten to take over one of the most populated cities on the planet? The New Batch — once again helmed by Joe Dante — is less interested in taking that route and more preoccupied with a treasure chest of fourth wall-breaking jabs at pop culture and the famous Gremlins guidelines.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch is currently streaming on HBO Max
3. Total Recall (1990)
Phillip K. Dick is a tricky author to adapt, but screenwriters Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon (the original creative duo behind Ridley Scott’s Alien) and Gary Goldman (Big Trouble in Little China) found a way. The finished product carries all the usual hallmarks of director Paul Verhoeven’s patented brand of sci-fi schlock (we mean that as a compliment) and the story of false memories covering up a sinister conspiracy predated The Matrix by almost a decade. Who doesn’t want to see Arnold Schwarzenegger running around Mars at the height of his action movie powers? The practical effects, which nabbed the movie an Oscar win, are the worth the price of admission alone.
Total Recall is currently streaming on Prime Video (Showtime subscription required)
4. Jurassic Park (1993)
Despite containing a mere 60 VFX shots, Jurassic Park was a watershed moment in the advancement of computer-generated imagery. Of course, that turned out to be a double-edge sword with many Hollywood productions starting to rely on an overhaul of digital effects rather than shelling out for the more expensive practical ones. The CGI in Jurassic Park was always meant to enhance the real-life dinosaur puppets, not turn them into lifeless ones and zeroes cranked out by a cold, unfeeling machine.
But when you're dealing with a theme park chock full of genetically-engineered lizard monsters, a modicum of irony is always welcome. In any case, the game-changing blockbusters remains an iconic showcase for the cinematic wizardry of a top-of-his-game Steven Spielberg and a perfect embodiment of the technological fears espoused by author Michael Crichton.
Jurassic Park is currently streaming on HBO Max
5. Mars Attacks! (1996)
ACK! ACK! ACK! As weird as it is mean-spirited, Mars Attacks! is that rare film adaptation inspired by a set of Topps trading cards. You can't make this stuff up, folks! Director Tim Burton may have bit off a little more than he could chew with this star-studded dark comedy about a global alien invasion from the Red Planet, but its status as a bona fide cult classic cannot be denied. While the parallel storylines never quite congeal (for a better example of how to pull that off, check out the next entry on this list), the bizarre appeal of big-brained aliens with a sadistic sense of humor and a head-exploding weakness to Slim Whitman is just too irresistible to ignore.
Mars Attacks! is currently streaming on Netflix
6. Independence Day (1996)
The destruction of famous landmarks, an ensemble cast of memorable characters, and Bill Pullman's rousing speech make this film so beloved. Released five months before Mars Attacks!, Independence Day solidified Roland Emmerich as Hollywood's resident master of disaster (a title he continues to live up to with Moonfall) who showed a knack for juggling intersecting narratives set against the backdrop of an apocalyptic event. It also confirmed Will Smith — fresh off Michael Bay's Bad Boys — as one of the hottest rising young stars in the entertainment industry. Where Tim Burton aimed for a more light-hearted and darkly satirical tone, Independence Day treated its own alien menace with gut-punching seriousness. When one of their massive ships razes the White House in one of the most iconic set pieces of any summer blockbuster in history, you know these E.T.s haven't popped by our planet to play around.
Even without their advanced technology, the extra-terrestrials are still formidable. Anyone else still scarred from when they watched Doctor Brakun get possessed by one of the aliens at Area 51 as a child? No? Just us? Ok, fair enough. Plus, the electrifying odd couple chemistry between Smith and Jeff Goldblum in the movie's latter half helped lay the groundwork for Smith's next alien team-up flick, Men in Black, the following year.
Independence Day is currently streaming on HBO Max
7. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
The second (and best) movie to feature the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast, First Contact is an action-packed time travel adventure that pits Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) against his most lethal enemy, the Borg, as the race of cybernetic beings sets out to prevent humanity's first contact with an alien race and thus alter the future for their benefit. Confidently directed by Jonathan Frakes, First Contact is a brisk and compelling sci-fi movie that anchors its impressive action to big emotional stakes, especially for our heroes.
8. Starship Troopers (1997)
"Come on, you apes, you wanna live forever?!”
Woefully misunderstood in its time, this straight-faced satire of fascism and rabid jingoism flies in the face of everything the source material (written by sci-fi legend Robert A. Heinlein) was advocating for. Beyond that, you’ve also got some wicked special effects of giant alien insects that can rip, melt, and suck brains. Pretty neat stuff.
Starship Troopers is currently streaming on Hulu
9. Men in Black (1997)
The tragedy of Men in Black is that the slew of sequels that followed were never quite able to capture the strange magic of the first movie, which thrusts us into the mysterious — and sometimes Kafka-esque — echelons of a quasi-government agency that monitors and regulates extra-terrestrial life on this little blue marble we call home. Everything in director Barry Sonnenfeld’s adaptation of Lowell Cunninghuman’s Malibu comic (and yes, this is is a comic book film) works in perfect harmony. From Ed Solomon’s tight and whip-smart screenplay, to the dynamic cinematography of Don Peterman, to Danny Elfman’s quirky score, to the cheeky world-building.
Tying it all together is the pitch-perfect marriage of Tommy Lee Jones as no-nonsense veteran, Agent K, and Will Smith as the wisecracking rookie, Agent J. Their crackling chemistry is what every buddy cop comedy aspires to achieve. Add in a ruthless interstellar cockroach the size of an SVU parading around Manhattan in the skin of Vincent D’Onofrio, and you’ve got something that is almost impossible to recreate. Men in Black is a cosmic anomaly — a neuralyzing cocktail of comedy, horror, absurdity, and existentialism wrapped up in a brisk 98-minute runtime.
To quote Frank the Pug: “Just ‘cause something’s important, doesn’t mean it’s not very, very small.”
Men in Black is currently streaming on Sling TV
10. Contact (1997)
A forerunner to Christopher Nolan's Interstellar — which, funnily enough, also starred Matthew McConaughey — Contact is a notable outlier when it comes to other '90s movies dealing with life beyond this planet. More procedural and grounded than it is fantastical and larger-than-life, this Carl Sagan-inspired offering from director Robert Zemeckis quietly ponders the almighty question of whether we’re alone in the universe without being too dull or listless. In fact, it’s actually quite emotional with the relationship between Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) and her father (David Morse) lying at the heart of the story. And come on, that iconic mirror shot at the start of the film is some of the coolest Hollywood magic to ever grace the big screen.
Contact is available to rent or purchase on Prime Video
11. The Fifth Element (1997)
If you haven’t yelled “Multi Pass!” at some point in your life, you’re either lying or living under a rock at the bottom of the ocean. Luc Besson’s quirky and often bizarre sci-fi adventure is chock full of memorable characters played by an ensemble of A-list screen legends: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Chris Tucker, and the late Ian Holm. The film's unique aesthetic can be credited to concept art whipped up by a pair of celebrated French illustrators: Jean-Claude Mézières and Jean Giraud (aka “Moebius”).
The Fifth Element is available to rent or purchase on Prime Video
12. Armageddon (1998)
Long before the world-weary cynicism of Don’t Look Up there was the naive optimism of Armageddon. The the third big screen effort from director Michael Bay, this film could very well be considered the origin of the term known simply as “Bayhem” (the filmmaker’s penchant for unadulterated and wildly entertaining chaos masquerading as a summer blockbuster). When a massive asteroid threatens to destroy the planet, a team of oil rig workers are shot up into space and tasked with blowing the darned thing up.
Why go with regular civilians when you can train seasoned astronauts to do the same job? Ben Affleck once pondered the same thing on set, to which Bay responded — and we’re paraphrasing here — Shut up, that’s why! Narrative and scientific preposterousness aside, Armageddon (co-written by none other than an up-and-coming J.J. Abrams) remains a glowing paragon of '90s disaster cinema.
Armageddon is currently streaming on Hulu
13. The Matrix (1999)
What can we say that hasn’t already been said about the Wachowskis’ paradigm-shifting blockbuster? Its commentary on free will, conformity, and Huxleyan apathy in the face of humanity’s growing reliance on technology had its finger on the beating pulse of a society about to face down a tidal wave known as the internet boom. Thanks to the rise of social media and other so-called "innovations" that take away our capacity for physical interaction, those themes have only become more relevant in the decades since the film's initial release.
The Matrix is currently streaming on HBO Max
14. The Iron Giant (1999)
Before The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, there was The Iron Giant. On its surface, the tale of a young boy who forms an unlikely friendship with a hulking robot from beyond the stars may sound like a warmed-over version of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Of course, you'd be wrong to make that assumption.
Brad Bird’s heartfelt and earnest tear-jerker is a genius subversion of ‘50s-era sci-fi, transforming the one-note fear and paranoia of Communist invasion into a multi-layered exploration of what it means to be a hero in a world that refuses to see you as anything else. Despite audience and critical acclaim, Warner Bros.’ inability to properly market the project led to abysmal box office returns. One could also claim that The Iron Giant was Vin Diesel's early audition for another cosmic character with a limited vocabulary: Groot in James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy.
The Iron Giant is currently streaming on Tubi
15. Galaxy Quest (1999)
The best Star Trek movie never made, Galaxy Quest is one of those rare films to expertly tackle the relationship between die-hard fans and the celebrities they look up to. While that dynamic can sometimes be toxic, it can also be incredibly moving. Helmed by Dean Parisot (Red 2, Bill & Ted Face the Music), the film centers around the fading cast members of a beloved sci-fi TV series who find themselves way out of their element when a race of honest-to-goodness aliens ask for their help in fighting an intergalactic war.
The ensemble cast — made up of Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Daryl Mitchell, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, Justin Long, Enrico Colantoni, Missi Pyle, and a young Rainn Wilson — give it their all in this meta and hilarious love letter to Gene Rodenberry and the genre groundswell the Star Trek creator first kicked off in the 1960s. The only downside is that we never got a sequel.
Galaxy Quest is currently streaming on Philo