The 25 Best Sci-Fi Films of the 90s

In the 1990s, the sci-fi genre reached new heights. With the advent of CG-character technology that was revolutionized in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park, the tools available for filmmaking increased exponentially. The impossible was now possible, and ideas that were once non-viable in the feature film format were now able to be realized. Of course technology is only a tool—it can get you so far, but it’s story and character that determine whether a film will stand the test of time. But master filmmakers like James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Luc Besson, and The Wachowskis seized upon these new opportunities and crafted sci-fi films that would endure for decades.

Of course the advent of new technology also opened up a wealth of new thematic potential as well. The rise of the digital age gave way to fear of robot uprisings or computers taking over the world, and this resulted in terrific (and terrifying) stories that were relevant to a rapidly changing world.

All in all, the 90s were one of the best decades for sci-fi filmmaking, and in an effort to highlight some of the most memorable films from that period, Collider’s own Haleigh Foutch, Adam Chitwood, and Dave Trumbore have singled out 25 great examples. Behold, the best sci-fi films of the 90s.

Gattaca

Director/Writer: Andrew Niccol

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law

Gattaca is the sci-fi genre at its very best. The 1997 film posits a future in which genetic engineering allows parents to choose exact traits—from sex to eye color—in their children before they’re born, and against this conceit, writer/director Andrew Niccol explores the ethics of eugenics, morality, and the idea of destiny. It’s taking a unique idea and exploring it to its full thematic potential, and the film served as a terrific precursor to Niccol’s The Truman Show screenplay that would come to fruition the following year. Ethan Hawke, playing a young man born “naturally” and thus relegated to being a janitor despite his dreams of becoming an astronaut, is fantastic in the lead role, and Niccol fills out the ensemble with Jude Law and Uma Thurman as fully drawn, complicated characters. The narrative is propelled by a murder mystery that never takes over the story, and Niccol doesn’t leave anything on the table when exploring his thematic thesis to its emotionally cathartic conclusion. – Adam Chitwood

The Fifth Element

Director: Luc Besson

Writers: Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen,

Cast: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Luke Perry, Tommy Lister

Luc Besson’s 1990 film La Femme Nikita certainly piqued audiences’ curiosity and 94’s The Professional gave him cult status, but with the introduction of The Fifth Element in 1997, Besson earned his first big-stage, box office blockbuster. The film was a perfect storm of cinema, combining the proven entity of Bruce Willis with the up-and-coming talent of Milla Jovovich, supported by such veterans as Gary Oldman and Ian Holm, and the comedy styling of Chris Tucker. Mix in a delightfully bizarre future-set mythology and a myriad of beautiful worlds full of creatures and aliens brought to life through practical design, and you have an action-packed, space-tripping epic that pleased domestic and international audiences alike.

The Fifth Element made its mark on the action genre by throwing colorful characters (literally and otherwise) together in a space-based shooting arcade that leaped from one altercation to the next at a break-neck pace. Whether it’s a spaceship battle in a planet’s orbit, a flying-car chase through the smog and haze of an overcrowded city, or the final stand against the universe’s greatest evil, The Fifth Element has a style of action balanced with snappy dialogue and humor that’s nearly impossible to replicate, even by Besson himself (though he has tried).  – Dave Trumbore

Tank Girl

Director: Rachel Talalay

Writer: Tedi Sarafian

Cast: Lori Petti, Naomi Watts, Ice-T, Malcolm McDowell, Iggy Pop, Reg E. Cathey, Jeff Kober, Don Harvey

Straight up, Tank Girl just isn’t for everybody. It’s cheeky camp to the utmost degree that essentially boils down to series of strange vignettes and set-pieces that occasionally feel like someone built a film out around a string of high-octane music videos. But it’s also fun as hell. A pure product of the MTV generation, Tank Girl is like a highly concentrated dose of the Alt-rock 90s, with a pretty jammin’ soundtrack that includes Portishead, Bjork, Hole, Veruca Salt, and Bush. Based on the comic of the same name by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, Tank Girl stars Lori Petti as the titular smart-mouthed hellion, a flippant, fearless icon of zero-fucks-given who squares off against the evil Power & Water Corporation in a desert landscape where water has become a commodity so valuable it’s worth killing for. It’s consummately silly, unapologetically so, but it’s made joyfully and without abandon, and if you’re  of the right disposition, it’s an absolute delight. — Haleigh Foutch

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Director: James Cameron

Writers: James Cameron and William Wisher Jr.

Cast: Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Edward Furlong, and Robert Patrick

There were a number of game-changing sci-fi films in the 90s, but Terminator 2 marked a massive first in the industry as it showcased the first CG-character effects with the arrival of the liquid metal Terminator. Indeed, James Cameron (unsurprisingly) is the filmmaker who first flirted with using CG for characters instead of backgrounds, and the results were pretty stunning. Of course it’s all moot if there’s nothing else going on, but as it turns out, story-wise Terminator 2 is one of the best sequels ever made. The film transforms Sarah Connor into a bona fide hero, subverting audience expectations by making Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator an ally this time around. Linda Hamilton does a swell job of playing a tortured hero, and Schwarzenegger gets to show off his comedy chops as Cameron crafts some funny interplay between the Terminator and the young John Connor. The filmmaker deftly sidesteps the pitfalls of dealing with time travel, instead offering up a rousing, rollicking thrill-ride with heart, humor, and spectacle in equal measure. – Adam Chitwood

Stargate

Director: Roland Emmerich

Writers: Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich

Cast: Kurt Russell, James Spader, Djimon Honsou, French Stewart, Jaye Davidson,

An early work of Roland Emmerich‘s, Stargate is a disaster film in minor that laid the groundwork for the grand-scale sweeping popcorn movies that would come to define his career. The film takes places after the discovery of an extraterrestrial teleportation device that transports matter from earth to a far-flung alien planet with a distinctly ancient Egyptian flavor. When James Spader‘s Egyptologist Daniel Jackson discovers how it works, he joins Kurt Russell’s military man Jack O’Neill through the portal with a team of soldiers in to investigate the planet on the other side. Naturally, once they’re there, everything goes to hell as they come up against the tyrannical sun god Ra (Jaye Davidson). Emmerich hadn’t yet fully defined his signature style and it often feels like he’s borrowing moves from familiar playbooks, but the sum of Stargate‘s parts is something that feels wholly his. It can be far-fetched and ridiculous, but part of Emmerich’s greatness is his grandiosity, and the Spader/Russell team-up delivers on it’s promise of eccentric odd-couple chemistry. It’s a big, boisterous popcorn movie carried by a fantastic leading duo and the emerging outlandish sensibilities of its filmmaker. — Haleigh Foutch

Starship Troopers

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Writers: Edward Neumeier, Robert A. Heinlein

Cast: Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, Clancy Brown, Seth Giliam, Michael Ironside

Verhoeven is a master of satire; his 1987 film RoboCop is easily the most-often cited in this regard. However, his relatively overlooked tongue-in-cheek space actioner Starship Troopers did for 90s sci-fi what Officer Alex J. Murphy did for violent 80s cop cinema. (It helps that it was based on Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo Award-winning novel of the same name.) Set in a distant future when the humans of the Terran Federation of Earth are locked into an intergalactic war with the bug-like aliens of Klendathu, this movie follows the exploits of patriotic high schoolers who enlist in the mobile infantry to take the fight directly to the nasty buggers.

What follows is an absolute skewering of right-wing militarism, the military-industrial complex, jingoism, the concept of disposable and replaceable infantry grunts, and fascism, not to mention intergalactic genocide. Yes, Starship Troopers is funny, it’s quotable, and it’s downright ludicrous at times (that cast, though). That’s 100% Verhoeven, and this gem has only started to receive its necessary accolades in recent years. – Dave Trumbore

Mars Attacks

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Jonathan Gems

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Natalie Portman, Anette Benning, Glenn Close, Jack Black, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Sarah Jessica Parker, Martin Short, Danny DeVito, Lisa Marie, Pam Grier

If Burton is often guilty of style over substance, Mars Attacks! is all style, no substance. The title is literally the plot of the film. Martians show up on earth. Then they attack. That’s it. That’s the movie. It’s not bad, in fact, it’s pretty fun, it’s just not much. Fortunately, if style’s all you got, Mars Attacks! has got it in spades. A doting spoof and homage to 1950s alien invasion pics, it’s pure B-movie schlock and surprisingly sadistic. As the Martians stage their no-prisoners invasion, Burton relishes in finding new ways to dispatch and torment his earthlings, which are played by an insanely impressive cast.

But this movie isn’t about the acting, and most of them end up without all much to do. The political satire is on-the-nose and the plot…wait just kidding, there isn’t really a plot, and without a narrative to hold things together, it’s the top-notch production value that ends up being the real star of the film. Spectacle isn’t enough to be great, but in this case, it’s enough to be good enough thanks to how Burton lovingly harkens back to the films that so obviously influenced him as a budding filmmaker. — Haleigh Foutch

Ghost in the Shell

Director: Mamoru Oshii

Writers: Kazunori Itô, Masamune Shirow

Cast: Atsuko Tanaka, Iemasa Kayumi, Akio Ôtsuka, Kôichi Yamadera, Yutaka Nakano, Tamio Ôki

If you need a gateway anime, you might want to look elsewhere. Ghost in the Shell is a mature look at government and corporate corruption, cyber-crime, and political intrigue all set within a futuristic world in which cybernetic enhancements are the norm. For some viewers, the animated nudity might well be a stopping point, but if you can look past the skin-deep surface of this anime, you’ll surely find a wealth of thematic content worth discussing.

And that discussion is at the heart of what makes good and long-lasting science-fiction. Projects like Humans, Westworld, the upcoming Blade Runner film, and the live-action adaptation of this very story suggest that general audiences are more ready than ever to think critically about artificial intelligence, realistic but robotic humanoids, and a world in which organic and synthetic life-forms live side by side. Get a crash course in all of these themes by exploring the original animated Ghost in the Shell. – Dave Trumbore

Contact

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writer: James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg

Cast: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, and William Fichtner

When filmmaker Robert Zemeckis was coming off his Oscar-heavy drama Forrest Gump, he could tackle pretty much whatever movie he wanted. So the choice of Contact as his next film was a curious one, as the director behind romps like Back to the Future and Death Becomes Her opted to dive headfirst into the age-old “faith vs. science” question with nuance and bombast in equal measure. Based on the book of the same name by astrophysicist Carl Sagan, the film is a mediation on humanity’s search for extraterrestrial life, and what we hope to find once contact is made. Jodie Foster is the stand-in for “science” here while Matthew McConaughey turns in a fine performance as a Christian philosopher who challenges Foster’s ideas. While the movie takes a few questionable turns along the way, it’s ultimately a fascinating and thought-provoking experience, and of course Zemeckis takes the opportunity to throw some cutting-edge visual effects into the mix. – Adam Chitwood

Event Horizon

Director: Paul W.S. Anderson

Writer: Philip Eisner

Cast: Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburne, Kathleen Quinlan, Joley Richardson, Jason Isaacs, Sean Pertwee, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy

There’s something about Even Horizon that is just downright unsettling and chilling. It’s a complete B-movie, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson of Resident Evil fame, but it also lands on surprisingly effective tone that somehow wrings out a nightmarish sense of doom amidst the poor character decisions and indulgent flourish. The story follows Sam Neill as Dr. William Weir, the designer of a groundbreaking space travel vehicle who journeys into space with a team of military scientists to uncover the cause of a distress beacon. Weir’s great invention was a gravity drive that allows for rapid space travel by creating black holes that close the gap between points in spacetime. But, as always in any good horror sci-fi, that kind of defiance of nature reaps unholy rewards when an evil force consumes the ship, thrusting the rescue crew into the same terror that befell their predecessors. There’s no doubt that Event Horizon cribs from superior films, and not in a way that feels like homage, but the sense of dread it conjures is a work all its own, punctuated by well-rendered moments of visceral gore and violence, all of it stemming from the natural middle ground where science fiction meets horror. — Haleigh Foutch

Total Recall

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Writers: Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, and Gary Goldman

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Rachel Ticotin, and Ronny Cox

In retrospect, Total Recall was a fitting sci-fi film to kick off the decade in 1990. Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story is weird, goofy, and terrific, and it’s in keeping with the tone of the sci-fi genre from the 80s. Total Recall came just before CG effects took over and dominated science-fiction films, and the makeup and physical effects of the film tow the line between awe-inspiring and kitschy. There’s a darkness to Total Recall that I think really makes the film work—Arnold Schwarzenegger is put to terrific use as the typical action hero lead, but in this film he’s up against soulless corporate goons who’d go so far as to suffocate an entire city of mutants. He’s outnumbered from the get-go and clueless for the entire first half of the movie, which makes the role of Douglas Quaid unique in Schwarzenegger’s filmography. At heart, it’s the charming nuttiness of Total Recall that makes the film such a great watch, and it’s a testament to Verhoeven’s handle on tone that the movie still holds up over two decades later. – Adam Chitwood

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Director: Joe Dante

Writer: Charles S. Haas

Cast: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Christopher Lee, and Robert Prosky

Gremlins 2 is a damn delight that may even be better than the original Gremlins, and I will fight anyone who says differently. While the first film was firmly in the horror genre, for the sequel director Joe Dante wanted to craft a darkly funny satire, and boy did he do just that. The follow-up takes place in a massive skyscraper in New York City as corporate greed leads to the creation of a hodge-podge of Gremlins (this Key & Peele sketch apparently isn’t too far off). The result is a hilarious, twisted, colorful monster movie with nods to classic films throughout. I get that some may think Gremlins 2 is cheesy or dopey, but Dante was purposefully leaning into the ridiculousness of the conceit, and his willingness to get crazier and crazier as the film rolls on is what makes Gremlins 2 such a joy to behold. – Adam Chitwood

Screamers

Director: Christian DuGuay

Writers: Dan O’Bannon and Miguel Tejada-Flores

Cast: Peter Weller, Jennifer Rubin, Roy Dupuis, Andy Lauer, Charles Powell, Ron White, Jason Cavalier

Set against the backdrop of a Cold War on a nuclear war ravaged planet, Screamers takes a grim and desolate view on the future, focusing on a planet full of soldiers from two sides of the same battle that have been abandoned by their government in the aftermath of war. On the planet Sirius 6B, commanding officer Joe Hendricksson (Peter Weller) sets out to seek peace with his combatants when he learns the truth that Earth has essentially left them for dead on their remote posts. But Sirius 6B is populated by “Screamers”, a form man-made artificial intelligence weaponry, properly called an Autonomous Mobile Sword (AMS), that evolved beyond what man ever intended. As Hendricksson and his team set out across the wasteland, they face peril at every turn from the various, sometimes deceiving, forms the Screamers have evolved into and director Christian DuGuary makes fine work of ratcheting up the tension, along with the dramatic stakes, as they make their way towards an uncertain alliance. Screamers has some serious sci-fi pedigree, based on a short story by the great Philip K. Dick wtih a screenplay co-penned by Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon. It never quite lives up to that grand promise, but Screamers is a refreshingly serious-minded spin on what could have easy become a schlocky B-movie that delivers visceral, pulse-pounding thrills every time its titular murder-bots attack. — Haleigh Foutch

The Faculty

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Writer: Kevin Williamson

Cast: Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, Jordana Brewster, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris, Shawn Hatosy, Salma Hayek, Piper Laurie, Robert Patrick, Famke Janssen, Jon Stewart, Bebe Neuwirth,

Spun from familiar threads of classic sci-fi yarn, The Faculty is a teen movie through-and-through, but in the hands of director Robert Rodriguez and screenwriter Kevin Williamson, it’s got enough punchy zeal and reverence for the genre it’s playing in to make for a fun, if somewhat silly, pulpy pleasure in its own right. If you’ll allow me to be a bit reductive, The Faculty feels like The Breakfast Club by way of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a healthy dose of The Thing. The film pits a rag-tag group of teenagers against an alien invasion that turns the infected hosts into a conforming hive-mind.

While The Faculty may deal in cliche characters on the surface level — the bitchy cheerleader and her quarterback boyfriend, the twerpy smart kid, the slacker genius, the vaguely goth outsider, the too-pure midwest transplant — it works because they’re all much more interesting than your standard trope fare. The teachers don’t get quite as much of a fair break, but with actors like Robert Patrick, Bebe Nuewirth, and Famke Janssen in the roles, they’re fabulously creepy as they fall one-by-one to the alien infestation. While teen movies are all-too-easy to deride, the virulent conformity narrative may have no more natural home than the halls of a high school, and Rodriguez largely steers clear of angst and apathy in favor of a campy, gleeful thrill-ride. — Haleigh Foutch

The Matrix

Directors/Writers: Lana and Lilly Wachowski

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano

1999 is one of the best years in film history, and The Matrix is right in the heart of that year’s bevy of quality filmmaking. The action masterpiece from the Wachowski siblings forever changed the game, taking advantage of cutting edge effects technology to create an entirely new cinema medium. “Bullet time” was absolutely jaw-dropping to audiences at the time, and the Wachowskis’ blending of American action clichés (gun fights, namely) and incredible martial arts fighting styles proved to be a match made in heaven. The story of the film ain’t too shabby either, touching on fears of the impending digital age. It’s remarkable how well The Matrix holds up today, especially when compared with other “web-centric” thrillers like Hackers, and while the sequels were met with far less enthusiasm, The Matrix has solidified its place in the annals of cinema as not just one of the best sci-fi films ever made, but one of the best films ever made, period. – Adam Chitwood

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Director: Nicholas Meyer

Writers: Nicholas Meyer and Denny Martin Flynn

Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nemoy, DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Kim Cattrall, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Christopher Plummer, Michael Dorn

Nicholas Meyer just gets what makes Star Trek tick. The filmmaker behind what’s almost universally considered the greatest Star Trek movie of all time, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, returned to helm another standout installment with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The film is essentially a sci-fi murder mystery set against the backdrop of racial tensions and the threat of war that finds Captain Kirk and McCoy wrongfully charged and imprisoned for the murder of the Klingon High Chancellor while the rest of the Enterprise’s crew rally to rescue them. It’s a fine send off for Star Trek‘s original crew, a philosophical and introspective exploration of the series resonant deeper themes that always respects the characters while still delivering the sci-fi spectacle with outstanding effects and clever gadgetry. The Undiscovered Country can feel bloated in parts, but it never overstays its welcome as a well-crafted vehicle for the beloved Enterprise crew and their iconic cast of characters — Haleigh Foutch

Independence Day

Director: Roland Emmerich

Writers: Roland Emmerich, Dean Devlin

Cast: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Randy Quaid, Robert Loggia, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox, Brent Spiner, Adam Baldwin, Harvey Fierstein

While the sins of the ill-advised sequel may be fresh in our minds, that unfortunate debacle can’t quite dim the shine of Roland Emmerich‘s 1996 sci-fi spectacle, Independence Day, which remains a bombastic delight even now. The movie follows three heroes of the alien apocalypse, Will Smith‘s hotshot army pilot Captain Steve Hiller, Jeff Goldblum‘s everyman satellite technician David Levinson, and Bill Pullman‘s Thomas J. Whitmore, president of the United States in the aftermath of a hostile invasion from an unknown alien combatant. Through the use of miniatures, Emmerich crafted enormous effects set-pieces, sending the world’s iconic landmarks up in flames and billowing plumes of smoke. But unlike a lot of Emmerich’s inferior works, Independence Day delivers characters as entertaining as the explosions, making for a blockbuster disaster adventure that has genuine charm and humor along with it’s kaboom-ing excess. — Haleigh Foutch

Strange Days

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Writers: James Cameron and Jay Cocks

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Seizmore, Vincent D’Onofrio, William Fitchner

As they say, the grass is always greener, but what becomes of a society that is driven by the consummate desire to be someone else? What happens when the need to escape our own reality through technological distraction overrules our desire to find fulfillment in our own life? At what point does partaking in another’s reality cause you to abandon your own? Such are the questions at the heart of Strange Days, an oft forgotten gem (perhaps because it completely tanked, earning a sixth of it’s budget) of the decade.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a script by James Cameron and Jay Cocks, Strange Days takes places across the last two days of 1999, when the streets of Los Angeles have fallen to continual rioting and street warfare after a famous, politically-charged rapper is murdered. At the same time, our everyman hero, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), is an ex-cop who’s moved on to more a lucrative trade, dealing virtual reality data disks of illicit experiences. The only thing he doesn’t deal in is “Black Jack”, aka snuff films. But when he receives a disk containing a grisly rape and murder, he’s pulled into a murderous conspiracy along with his friend, the bodyguard/limousine driver/bad bitch, Mace (Angela Bassett).

Strange Days is equal parts futuristic nightmare and noir murder mystery, set in a grimy, grungy vision of a future-tech driven society; a pre-millenium squalor of indulgent vice and somewhat prescient racial tensions. It doesn’t deal with the fear of our own technological inventions uprising and taking over the world, but the much more realistic threat of our fascination with them taking over our lives. It’s the Black Mirror approach — you shouldn’t be afraid of technology, but of the people using it.  In pursuing that message, Strange Days isn’t particularly subtle, but it is effective thanks to fantastic performances, a clever script, and Bigelow’s confident direction. — Haleigh Foutch

Men in Black

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld

Writer: Ed Solomon

Cast: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Rip Torn

The pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black is one of those ideas that’s so crazy it just might work. Indeed, the cocky motor-mouth of Smith serves as a terrific foil for the straight-laced, no-nonsense Jones, and throwing the two of them into an absurd sci-fi romp is a stroke of genius. Filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld’s cheeky sensibilities are a perfect fit for the 50s-throwback vibe of Men in Black, and while the film is plenty funny and an absolute joy to look at (Rick Baker’s creature effects in this franchise are incredible), there’s a surprising level of heart that grounds the story, keeping it from becoming entirely alien to the audience. The film was one of those perfect storms that comes along every once in a blue moon in Hollywood, and while its two sequels were fine, there’s something about the first Men in Black that really holds up all these years later. – Adam Chitwood

Jurassic Park

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: David Koepp and Michael Crichton

Cast: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenbourgh, Samuel L. Jackson, and Wayne Knight

If Terminator 2 served as a taste for what CG effects could do, Jurassic Park was the feast. Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece did the unthinkable—it brought dinosaurs back from the dead with jaw-dropping visual effects, resulting in the filmmaker’s scariest film since Jaws. Jurassic Park is unrelenting in its tension as Spielberg deftly plays the audience like an instrument, but it’s not enough for Spielberg to simply thrill us—he wants to make us think. The Michael Crichton adaptation tackles lofty issues like the morality of genetic engineering and offers no easy answers, allowing the audience to make up their own minds in between covering their eyes at the site of a T-Rex barreling towards an indisposed Jeff Goldblum. – Adam Chitwood

Escape from L.A.

Director: John Carpenter

Writers: John Carpenter, Debra Hill, Kurt Russell

Cast: Kurt Russell, Steve Buscemi, Georges Corraface, Peter Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Valeria Golino, Pam Grier, A.J. Langer, Stacy Keach, Bruce Campbell, and Michelle Forbes

Where Escape from New York was a precisely cut, stylish science fiction classic – politically subversive, serious-minded in its conception, and vibrantly inventive in its imagery – Escape from L.A. seems more purposefully cheeky and cheap. This isn’t to say that the second mission by Snake Pliskin (Kurt Russell) isn’t encoded with John Carpenter’s particular brand of leftist politics, but it’s delivered in a far more bombastic aesthetic, the dark greys and blues of the first film traded in for yellows, oranges, and reds. This is, in a sense, a reflection of the difference between the two cities but also reflects the mythology of those cities. New York is thought of as a dangerous realm rife with killers, gangs, and violent thieves, whereas Los Angeles is the playground of the blowhards, the covert sadists, the con men, and the self-obsessed.

In a sense, this is a commentary on Carpenter’s arrival in the Hollywood system, far away from his early days as cult genre filmmaker that had to do some hard-scrapping to get his meager budgets. In Escape from L.A., pitted against a cruel revolutionary who makes himself up like Che Guevera, Pliskin is a man with a name, a celebrity even, brawling and shooting his way out of an island of West Coast maniacs and derelicts, just trying to get a job done. – Chris Cabin

Dark City

Director/Writer: Alex Proyas

Cast: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Melissa George

As a filmmaker, Alex Proyas‘ stylistic indulgences tend to overshadow the quality and craftsmanship of his storytelling, but his 1998 sci-fi thriller Dark City was the moment when form elegantly met function. A techno-noir drenched in an inky palette of blue-blacks and greys, Dark City follows Rufus Sewell as John Murdoch, a man who lives in a world with no sun, and wakes up on night with only a few scattered memories that he can’t identify and struggles to understand. Framed for a series of grisly murders, John uncovers a group of sinister men known as The Strangers.who bend the world to their will while the residents are sleeping. Gloomy and grim, Dark City highlights the best of Proyas’ talents, a visionary spectacle of eerie imagery and unnerving tone that teeters dangerously on the edge of madness as Murdoch’s quest for truth grows ever more desperate. There’s a somewhat scrappy feel to the film, like Proyas is always exceeding his means, but it never feels campy or quaint. Instead, it’s a mood-drenched vision of psychological terrors and gumshoe truth-seeking that revels in dream logic and nightmarish imagery. — Haleigh Foutch

eXistenZ

Director/Writer: David Cronenberg

Cast: Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Eccleston, Callum Keith Rennie, Oscar Tsu, Kris Lemche

It’s hard to talk about the plot of eXistenZ because so much of the fun is trying to figure out where reality ends and the game begins, but in the simplest terms, the film is set in a time when video games have become biologically fused with their players, and the lines between reality and escapism blur beyond recognition. On the eve of the release of a hotly anticipated release from the world’s most renowned game designer, the excellent pairing of Jennifer Jason Leigh‘s Allegra Geller and Jude Law’s Ted Pikul find themselves entwined in a scheme of assassination and reality-bending mystery as they partake in a test group for the groundbreaking new game. Cronenberg tones down his trademark body horror from the visceral and the ghastly to a cringe-inducing discomfort as he explores the sometimes grotesque meeting-point between humanity and technology. The fusion of entertainment and the flesh harkens back to Videodrome, and at times it can feel like Cronenberg is thematically cannibalizing himself, but eXistenZ very much stands on its own as a thrilling puzzle-box with walls made out of pulsating flesh, rotting teeth, and bits of bone.  — Haleigh Foutch

12 Monkeys

Director: Terry Gilliam

Writers: Chris Marker, David Webb Peoples, Janet Peoples

Cast: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, David Morse, Vernon Campbell

Time travel seems to be in vogue at the moment with any number of TV shows and movies monkeying around with the concept. 12 Monkeys is easily among the best to do so. Inspired by the fantastic and heart-breaking short film La Jetée by the late Chris Marker, the plot centers on a reluctant time-traveler living in a world plagued by a deadly epidemic who is tasked with heading to the past to gather information on the virus so that contemporary scientists can develop a cure.

While the plot just screams sci-fi (time travel, global epidemics, questionable scientific meddling, etc.), 12 Monkeys is also one of the better mind-benders in cinematic history. In fact, a strong theme of the film itself has to do with mental health and how those who are perceived as mentally ill are treated by society and authority figures. If you want a classic hero’s tale, look elsewhere. But if you’re able to handle a tragic hero who struggles against the deck that’s stacked against him,12 Monkeys is one of the best. – Dave Trumbore

Galaxy Quest

Director: Dean Parisot

Writers: David Howard and Robert Gordon

Cast: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, and Sam Rockwell

There’s a reason hardcore Star Trek fans voted Galaxy Quest as one of the best Star Trek movies ever made. While the Dean Parisot-helmed comedy technically has nothing to do with Star Trek, the film is a pitch-perfect send-up of the on-set tensions amongst the original Trek cast, as well as the show’s most tired tropes. Tim Allen is incredible as a William Shatner-esque self-involved former TV star who, along with the cast from his show, gets roped into a real intergalactic battle. Galaxy Quest works so well because it loves its characters—while it may be unforgiving, it’s never mean-spirited and the pathos of someone like Alan Rickman goes a long way. But it’s also hilarious and a great sci-fi film in its own right. Never give up, never surrender. – Adam Chitwood

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