The '90s were best defined by cynicism, indie filmmakers and risk. It was certainly a far cry from today’s desperate franchising and remakes. And with the innate freedom of science-fiction, bound only by imagination, there were some fascinating hits.
And as cosmic as the genre can be, a great deal of these films focused on its true strength—unvarnished self-scrutiny. Conceptually robust and innovative, the boom of computerized visual effects also opened a new world of possibilities. Creativity ran amok with dinosaurs and liquid metal, while emphasizing compelling characters and dense plotting. So, here are the best sci-fi movies the 1990s had to offer, according toIMDb.
10 The Fifth Element - 7.7
In a word, bizarre. With a futuristic Earth at stake, our only hope is a few stones, not unlike the MCU’s Infinity Stones. And they involve the four elements, just like Avatar: The Last Airbender. But this movie feels like it leapt right off the pages of a comic book. It’s visually saturated with nifty ideas and vibrant colors, throughout.
Bruce Willis more or less plays himself, which audiences have been fine with for a while. He plays another everyman caught up in a fantastic situation, and he helps save the day. It’s a brisk, unique adventure with a personality so strange, it’s all at once a blockbuster and a cult classic.
9 Open Your Eyes - 7.8
Director Alejandro Amenábar often enjoys pursuing mind-bending films, and this surreal classic is certainly a treat. The plot involves a man who loses his attractive face after a car accident. The resulting disfigurement coincides with psychological fragmentation. If the plot sounds vaguely familiar, this film was actually remade as Vanilla Sky, with Tom Cruise.
The mystery is full of clever red herrings and twists, while the drama is poignant and convincing. The performances are absolutely essential, helping to ground such a winding plot. In fact, Penélope Cruz even reprises her role in the American remake. But the original arguably has more authenticity, nuance, and a stronger finale.
8 Gattaca - 7.8
Director Andrew Niccol actually makes the list twice, but this one leans far more into the science. The film revolves around genetics, and the worldbuilding is equally plausible and compelling. The pacing is very methodical, and focuses on exploring relationships. The film provides a very moody atmosphere, and alongside the score, some may find the ‘artsy’ style a bit overmuch.
But it’s tastefully done, and interesting nonetheless—granted patience, and perhaps a prior fascination with science. The story offers up a single alteration to the future, and spends the entire film meticulously detailing every logical effect. The pursuit of space flight, and the murder investigation move things along, for a slow story with a captivating journey.
7 Ghost In The Shell (1995) - 8.0
Fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion may be frustrated at its omission here. But Ghost in the Shell is a standalone film, whereas the other definitive '90s anime hit is more like an experimental series finale. There isn’t much left to say about the Scarlett Johannson adaptation. But Ghost in the Shell is definitely one of the most influential anime films ever made. Its iconic imagery and conceptual brilliance are so brimming with originality, and epiphany.
Much of our favorite sci-fi is imbued with it, either subconsciously or by design. The action, themes, and even the art of the visuals are groundbreaking. This film transcends the genre, and even the medium.
6 The Iron Giant - 8.0
Director Brad Bird hasn’t directed much, but his animated outings have defined generations of childhood, including The Incredibles and Ratatouille. And before that, there was a certain twist on E.T. that established all the qualities which made those hits so endearing. Most importantly, it treats younger audiences with respect. It trusts them to handle mature themes, blending heartwarming verisimilitude with sci-fi fanfare.
It is a surprisingly touching story, that dexterously delivers its messages with nuance, without forgetting to entertain. The film is certainly plenty of fun, but it defies all expectations of a children’s animated tale.
5 12 Monkeys - 8.0
Time travel has undoubtedly resulted in some of the messiest sci-fi movies on record. We simply can’t understand or interpret such an intangible thing, innately causing numerous plot holes. So, when a film does it right, like this Terry Gilliam classic, it’s especially memorable.
The premise is instantly gripping, as Bruce Willis is sent to the past in order to stop an apocalyptic virus. The film maintains a thrilling pace, and the worldbuilding is so compelling, it even spawned a TV series adaptation. But this is far superior, an enthusiastic art film with blockbuster qualities, like the all-star cast.
4 Jurassic Park - 8.1
This landmark blockbuster delivered revolutionary visual effects, clever suspense, lovable characters and mature themes. Despite exploring scientific ethics, hubris and corporate greed, the film is brimming with family-friendly attitudes and fun. Spielberg deftly wields tone, balancing genuine frights with perfectly-timed humor. The imagery is unforgettably potent, particularly combined with the unrivaled skills of John Williams.
The practical effects ensure the film will stand the test of time, thanks to the incomparable work of Stan Winston. And the cast is full of plausible, everyday people, who ground the film even when it becomes a fantastical adventure. Structurally perfect, Jurassic Park captures the pure essence of cinema, in every possible regard.
3 The Truman Show - 8.1
It speaks volumes for a dramedy, when it boasts thousands more IMDb ratings than Jurassic Park. In one of Jim Carrey’s greatest roles, an oblivious man’s entire livelihood is exploited for reality television. This was absolutely timely in the '90s, contemplating the societal ethics of such entertainment. But the advent of social media has only exacerbated such habits, wherein people radically covet validation by their online presence. This has resulted in far worse exploitation and vitriol involving unprepared individuals.
Themes aside, The Truman Show is an incredible showcase for Carrey’s range. Andrew Niccol’s script seamlessly blends comedy and drama, while challenging reality with a fascinating adventure. Both Truman and his audiences are sly manifestations of intriguing themes, but the film is even superficially entertaining.
2 Terminator 2: Judgment Day - 8.5
Unquestionably one of the best films ever made, let alone amongst its peers in sci-fi and action. For those who are frustrated by the parade of faltering sequels, this can always be the definitive canon ending. The first half is essentially a high-powered remake of the original entry, while the second half offers a conclusive, bittersweet, action-packed finale. The parallel between Sarah Connor’s robotic attitude towards John and Dyson, and the T-800’s acquisition of human attributes, is riveting.
The film is driven by John’s relationship with his protector, which explores actual artificial intelligence. Likewise, Terminator 2: Judgment Day takes every conceit of the original, and elaborates, with equal monumental success.
1 The Matrix - 8.7
An action-packed, philosophical tribute to countless sci-fi influences, this remains one of the most stunning films of all time. It primarily challenges the very notion of reality, and the machines can represent countless interpretations. Its overall thematic density is so rich, repeat viewings will perpetually draw new observations, all around.
The visuals are utterly iconic, pushing technology and camerawork beyond their limits. Simply for sparking so many conversations at once, it is an invaluable piece of cinema. The mystery unfolds with genuine humor, extravagant worldbuilding, and brilliant action set-pieces. But the characters themselves are equally engaging, at once both plausible and larger than life.