Some of the most iconic movies of all time were released in the 90s, from Titanic to The Silence of the Lambs to The Lion King. The sci-fi genre was no different, and the development of CGI and other special effects brought cinematography to a new level, making some of these films blockbusters.
These 14 films make up some of the best 90s sci-fi movies, and are even some of the best and most groundbreaking movies of any genre from the decade. Don’t agree, or feel like we missed one? Let us know in the comments.
Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Combine sci-fi, a Western, and a really fast train and you have Back to the Future Part III. Starring Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly — appearing in a Back to the Future movie for the third and final time — this movie might be the franchise's most ambitious. Marty and Doc (Christopher Lloyd) go from the (now past) future of 2015 to 1885 in California. After discovering that Doc dies in 1885, Marty travels back in time to save him with only six days to do so. Along the way, Marty meets his ancestors, and Doc hatches a plan to speed up a train that will bring Marty back to the 80s—where he will hopefully stay.
Back to the Future Part III offers a satisfying conclusion to the beloved series that began five years earlier. Time travel and wild technological advancements are just two of the sci-fi tropes in the film that will entice fans of the genre.
Total Recall (1990)
In between being The Terminator and the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in Total Recall, a sci-fi action flick that was loosely based on “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” a 1966 short story by Philip K. Dick. Considered to be one of the most expensive Hollywood productions at the time of its release—with a budget reportedly between $50 and $65 million—Total Recall has no shortage of futuristic special effects. These special effects were so advanced for the time that the film won the Special Achievement Academy Award.
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Schwarzenegger plays Douglas Quaid/Hauser, a construction worker who consistently has dreams about Mars, where a rebellion is going on. Instead of taking a vacation, he elects to take a memory trip to Mars, working as a secret agent. When the memory trip goes wrong, he discovers that the life he has been living is all a facade, and the government is trying to suppress his true identity.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Before directing Titanic, the highest-grossing film of the 1990s, James Cameron wrote, directed, and produced Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It was the first film to use natural human motion for CGI characters, and it was the highest grossing film of 1991. Many consider it to be superior to the first film in the franchise.
John Connor (Edward Furlong) is a young boy living in foster care. His mom Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is in a mental hospital after trying to prepare John to become a Human Resistance Leader against Skynet, which is an artificial intelligence group. Skynet sends a new Terminator, T-1000, to kill John during his childhood before John has the opportunity to grow up and become the Human Resistance Leader he is fated to be. The T-800 terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) does all he can to protect John ,and becomes an almost surrogate father figure along the way.
Honey, I Blew Up the Kid (1992)
The sequel to the 1989 movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids takes place five years after the original. In an inversion of his antics from the first film, Wayne Szalinski (Rick Moranis) has built a shrink ray that now makes things huge, instead of microscopic. Proving that he never learned his lesson, Wayne hits his two-year-old son, Adam, with the ray, making him the world’s biggest toddler. Chaos ensues as Szalinski tries to get his son back to a normal size before his wife returns home from dropping their eldest daughter off at college.
Seeing the curly haired blonde baby version of Godzilla never fails to induce a laugh, especially when said baby is the size of a house. The film also stars Keri Russell in her film debut as Adam’s babysitter, who is surely in for the surprise of her life when she shows up to watch him.
Jurassic Park (1993)
The Jurassic Park franchise started with the publication of famed sci-fi author Michael Crichton's novel of the same name in 1990. The first film was such a hit that more movies are still being made today, with the most recent 2018 installment showcasing the aftermath the park's destruction has on the world. Though 25 years old now, Jurassic Park’s special effects still hold up pretty well in a CGI-perfected world, proving that this film is a 90s classic in general, and one of the strongest sci-fi movies of all time.
After a dinosaur kills one of its handlers, Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Alan Grant (Sam Neill) are recruited by Jurassic Park’s creator, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to assess if the theme park will be safe for future visitors. After Hammond’s corporate enemy hatches a plan to steal the dinosaurs by shutting the island’s power off, Hammond’s grandkids are stuck with Ellie and Alan. With the dinosaurs roaming free, the group must do all they can to avoid becoming a carnivore’s breakfast.
The City of Lost Children (1995)
This French film combines sci-fi and fantasy in a whimsical style that director Jean-Pierre Jeunet also showcased in two of his other films: Delicatessen and Amelie. With costume work done by famed designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, The City of Lost Children is a truly magical sci-fi flick.
Krank (Daniel Emilfork) is the twisted creation of a now-disappeared scientist. Krank is aging prematurely, because he no longer has the ability to dream. He devises a plan to steal dreams from children after kidnapping them. When he takes the adopted brother of a strongman named One (Ron Perlman) from the local carnival, Krank sparks a battle that could lead to his demise, and the destruction of his dream extraction machine.
Independence Day (1996)
Coming off the heels of playing a complete goof in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will Smith starred in a more serious role as Captain Steven Hiller in Independence Day. In the film, an alien spaceship takes over some of the world’s biggest cities, and satellite technician Dave Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) determines that the aliens are planning a huge full-scale attack on July 4th, which only gives humans two days to prepare.
When Captain Hiller’s efforts allow a scientist to get inside the mind of one of the aliens, he determines that the aliens want to kill everyone on Earth and take every resource. Like other films on this list, Independence Day was the highest grossing film the year that it was released, and it is currently within the Top 70 of the highest grossing films of all time.
Men in Black (1997)
Based on The Men in Black comic books, the film is a sci-fi comedy about hunting aliens. Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith’s characters make an unlikely duo, but their camaraderie on screen shows that their pairing makes total sense. The franchise is still alive and well, with the fourth film slated for a June of 2019 release and it stars Chris Hemsworth and Liam Neeson.
In Men in Black, aliens secretly live on Earth among other humans. A government agency, known as the Men in Black, finds these secret aliens to arrest them. Agent K (Jones) gets an inexperienced new partner, Agent J (Smith) after his first partner retires. The two set out on a mission around New York, from the Guggenheim Museum to the World’s Fair Pavilion to hunt these extraterrestrials down.
John Hughes, the master of the 80s teen angst movie, wrote the script for Flubber, which is based on the 1961 film The Absent-Minded Professor. His signature humor is evident in the fun movie, which stars Robin Williams as Professor Philip Brainard. When the college that Philip works for is at risk of closing, he invents a substance similar to flying rubber (AKA Flubber) that literally has a mind of its own. Flubber enhances everything it sticks to, giving Philip a chance to save his college by attaching it to the bottoms of the basketball players’ sneakers, transforming them into unstoppable athletes which actually makes them good.
Flubber is a rare and refreshing sci-fi instance in which new technology actually proves to be helpful instead of detrimental to the fate of the world. The flubber substance saves Brainard’s relationship with his fiance Sarah Jean Reynolds (Marcia Gay Harden), and rescues the school from closing.
Starship Trooper (1997)
Based on a sci-fi novel of the same name by Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers takes place in the Federation in the 23rd century, with humans trying to colonize new planets. During these intergalactic investigations, the explorers find an insect species that they call “Bugs.”
High school students Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his friends enlist in the military, the most prestigious role in the Federation. When an asteroid kills millions, he resolves to defeat the Bugs who caused it and an epic battle ensues.
The Fifth Element (1997)
This futuristic flick combines adventure and sci-fi as the characters chase four stones that will save the fate of the universe. Director Luc Besson began the story for the film when he was 16, and saw it come to fruition 22 years later. A French production, the film was the highest-grossing French movie at the international box office until The Intouchables came out in 2011.
A great evil comes every 5,000 years to the universe, and there’s only one weapon that can defeat it: the Fifth Element. In the 23rd century, a black fireball crushes a spaceship from Earth, sparking global fear that an evil force is at work. An alien group, the Mondoshawans, also have a spaceship that is destroyed, save for a severed hand in a silver glove. On Earth, scientists recreate the woman who the hand belonged to, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich.) She crashes into the cab of Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) and he soon realizes that she’s no ordinary woman.
The X-Files (1998)
This film is meant to take place in between seasons five and six of the hit Fox show of the same name. Starring five of the main cast members from the show, including David Duchovny as Fox Mulder and Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully, the film is not just for fans of the show, and it was made to dive deeper into the series’ mythology.
The movie begins in 35,000 B.C.E. with two cavemen discovering an alien in their cave, covered in a toxic black substance. In the present, a young boy encounters the same black substance, after which Scully and Mulder are called in to investigate, and a series of missteps puts their iconic partnership in jeopardy.
Though some critics may have criticized the editing and scientific accuracy of Armageddon, it was the highest grossing film of 1998, proving that there is something about the sci-fi flick that makes it a ‘90s classic. The film also boasts an all-star cast including Ben Affleck, Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, and Owen Wilson.
NASA discovers that an asteroid will crash into Earth and cause the immediate extinction of the human race within 18 days if a team of scientists doesn’t create something to detonate it. Enter a plot to launch two space shuttles, with oil rigger Harry Stamper (Willis) and his team at the helm. Stamper must separate the asteroid by digging into the core to send it off course from Earth. Armageddon is filled with suspense—not surprisingly, considering that the fate of the world is in Stamper’s hands—and the action sequences are non-stop.
The Matrix (1999)
Nothing screams the 90s more than a Keanu Reeves movie, and The Matrix is one of his best. Fans of (well-executed) special effects and people in floor-length black coats unlocking government secrets will find a perfect fit with The Matrix. The film is also credited with popularizing the camera technique “bullet time,” which was present in the iconic scene when Reeves’ character dodges a flurry bullets while on a helipad.
Reeves plays Thomas Anderson, AKA Neo, a computer hacker who suspects that the world is not as it seems. After seeing the phrase “the Matrix” pop up while hacking, Neo is contacted by a woman named Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), who escaped from the Matrix and confirms Neo’s suspicions about the presence of intelligent machines that overpowered humans. A team of spies is also after him, wanting information about people freed from the Matrix, like Trinity, so they can hunt them down. Neo is brought into a new world of warfare between technology and humans that spans planets and dimensions.
Featured still from "The Matrix" via Warner Bros.