Roger Donaldson's Alien riff stars Natasha Henstridge as a half-human, half-extraterrestrial hybrid who has be stopped before she can find a man to impregnate her. Species isn't as smart as it thinks it is, but a few classic scenes - like Henstridge's tongue shooting out of the back of an undesirable mate's skull - make it memorable.
RoboCop 2 isn't as good as the original, but it's still an entertaining film. Irvin Kirshner piles on the cynical humor, creating a cartoonishly wicked society for RoboCop to both protect and fall victim to. And the climactic fight between two RoboCops is an impressive spectacle.
The idea of Event Horizon is better than the actual film, which suffers from stilted dialogue and poor plotting. Nevertheless, a superb cast and exciting production design have earned this "haunted house in space" sci-fi thriller its standing as a cult classic.
A wealthy, dying Anthony Hopkins wants to transplant his mind in a healthy body, so he uses time travel to steal one from a less polluted era. Soon, a young Emilio Estevez is on the run from Mick Jagger in a bizarre futuristic version of The Fugitive which doesn't always make sense, but has a lot of charm.
Tim Burton's mean-spirited all-star comedy imagines a world populated by such unlikable jerks that the audience won't mind when they're all disintegrated in a catastrophic alien invasion. It's incredible that a movie this vicious exists, and that any studio would spend such an enormous amount of money to bring it to life. But they did, and it's undeniably fascinating.
In the early 1990s everyone thought virtual reality would change the world, mostly because The Lawnmower Man said so. Brett Leonard's so-called adaptation of a Stephen King story (other than the presence of a lawnmower they have nothing in common) imagines a world in which computers could increase our brain power to the point of near godhood. It was ludicrous then, it's ludicrous now, but it's intriguing as a reminder of where we once thought technology might take us.
The original Bill & Ted was a kooky teen Doctor Who riff about slackers who use a time machine to get an "A+" on their history test. The sequel is 100 times weirder, introducing killer robots and eventually sending Bill and Ted to Hell and Heaven, where they're chased by Easter Bunnies, meet God personally and team up with aliens. Weirdest of all, somehow it kinda makes sense.
Abel Ferrara's remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn't have the same powerful cultural commentary as its predecessors, but it's a creepy rendition with disturbing visual effects and a solid cast. Meg Tilly, in particular, has one of the scariest speeches in horror movie history.
In the future, a private prison has given up on architecture and simply sends all their prisoners to a deserted island to fend for themselves. Lance Henriksen leads a tribe that wants to build a society, Stuart Wilson wants to burn it all to the ground, and Ray Liotta is the soldier who could turn the tide in their war. No Escape is a tense, grungy sci-fi thriller that deserves a bigger audience.
The other great privatized prison sci-fi film of the 1990s stars Christopher Lambert and Loryn Locklin as a married couple who are condemned for having too many children. Kurtwood Smith runs the Fortress, a bizarre place full of colorful characters and horrifying adjudication technology. The "intestinators" will stick with you for a while.
Scientists have found a way to use shark brains to cure Alzheimer's disease, so they decide to genetically engineer giant supersmart sharks to speed up the process. The concept is absurd but a smart alecky screenplay with lots of unexpected moments turns this kooky killer shark flick into a sci-fi thrill ride that still satisfies nearly 20 years later.
In the future, countries don't go to war. When they have a dispute they have gladiators fight it out in giant robots. Robot Jox is just an excuse for fantastic stop-motion robot fights, but there's nothing wrong with that, especially when those fights still put many bigger budgeted contemporary action movies to shame.
Roland Emmerich put himself on the map with Universal Soldier, a film about zombie black ops soldiers. Jean-Claude Van Damme plays an undead juggernaut who goes on the run, Dolph Lundgren plays the corpse who goes Section 8 and starts cutting off ears. It's some of the most entertaining work we've ever seen from both action stars, in a film that's pretty clever and culminates in an epic showdown between badass movie titans.
Fans of Escape from New York originally balked at John Carpenter's jokier sequel, but time has been kind to Escape from L.A. Kurt Russell returns as Snake Plissken, enlisted against his will by a conservative dictator to rescue the First Daughter from the horrors of Hollywood, which is overrun by freaky villains. The social satire is broad but on point, and if you've ever spent any real time in Los Angeles you'll laugh your butt off at all the in-jokes.
From the director of Desperado and the writer of Scream came an Invasion of the Body Snatchers riff set in a high school. That's about it really, but the execution is so excellent and the cast is so charismatic that The Faculty still stands out as a rock solid 90s sci-fi/horror thriller.
Another underrated sequel. Fans of the Alien series were frustrated when David Fincher killed off two beloved characters before the end of the credits, but the film that remains is a harrowing claustrophobic nightmare in which Ellen Ripley finds herself in a maximum security penitentiary where an unusual breed of xenomorph might be the least of her worries. Alien 3 may be messy, but it's devastating.
Roland Emmerich took the fantastical idea that aliens built the pyramids and ran with it, creating a flashy pulp saga about soldiers who help save an alien planet from the tyrannical rule of an extraterrestrial Egyptian god. Who cares if it's ludicrous? Stargate is a lot of fun.
This overlooked sci-fi gem stars Charlie Sheen as a radio astronomer who finally finds a alien communication signal... but it's coming FROM the planet Earth. A vast conspiracy is underfoot in David Twohy's smart, unexpected potboiler.
Rachel Talalay's adaptation of the cult classic comic book stars Lori Petty and Naomi Watts as women on the run from a tyrannical despot, who steal a tank and a jet and team up with kangaroo men to save the future and indulge in the occasional musical number. Tank Girl is deliriously punk, unconcerned with convention and brimming with subversive personality.
Richard Stanley's low-budget cyberpunk shocker is the story of a guy who accidentally gives his sculptor girlfriend a self-repairing murder robot as a present. Hardware has a bit more atmosphere than substance but it's a scary sci-fi thriller with impressive practical effects.
A Buddy Holly impersonator (?) wanders the post-apocalyptic wasteland, slicing his sword through villains on his path to becoming the King of Rock and Roll. Along the way he tangles with Death and picks up a kid sidekick in Lance Mungia's cult classic, an energetic and highly unusual blend of rockabilly and samurai iconography.
One of the best Star Trek movies veers further into action territory than most of the other films in the series, pitting an unusually angry Capt. Jean-Luc Picard against the tyrannical Borg and sending the crew of the Enterprise back in time to fix the future. What First Contact lacks in philosophical thoughtfulness it compensates for with fast-paced suspense and satisfying sci-fi set pieces.
This mostly forgotten adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's dystopian short story stars Sean Astin as Harrison Bergeron, a genius in a world where mediocrity is law. He expects to be lobotomized but winds up enlisted in a secret government program that keeps everyone - even the politicians - from becoming too smart for their own good. Harrison Bergeron is a fantastic adaptation with big ideas that stick with you longer after the credits roll.
So much of Face/Off plays just like a normal, overblown John Woo movie that it might be easy to forget it takes place in a world with crazy magnetized prisons and technology that can immediately graft someone's face onto your own. Face/Off features glorious action but Nicolas Cage and John Travolta are the ones who really bring it to life, exploring the inner turmoil and tragedy of two arch-enemies who are forced to trade faces... and lives.
Kathryn Bigelow's vision of a semi-futuristic 1999 didn't come to pass but Stronge Days is an impressive thriller anyway. Ralph Fiennes plays an illegal tech dealer who sells virtual reality experiences, but who finds himself at the center of a mystery when he discovers that someone is recording themselves committing murder. A solid mystery, a great cast and a grimy cyberpunk aesthetic has turned Strange Days into a beloved cult classic.
A group of strangers wake up inside a giant cube. On each side of the cube is an entrance to another cube, which leads to more cubes, and so on. They embark on a journey to find their way out of the futuristic labyrinth but a series of ingenious math problems, horrifying death traps and disturbing revelations about their identities make it a perilous prospect in Vincenzo Natali's impressively simple, yet somehow disturbingly elaborate Cube.
Big, dumb and undeniably entertaining, Roland Emmerich's Independence Day updated the original War of the Worlds idea into a flashy ensemble blockbuster, taking the old Irwin Allen disaster movie approach so audiences can witness the alien invasion from multiple perspectives. It's still fun, damn it.
The last installment of the Back to the Future trilogy sends Doc Brown and Marty McFly back to the old west, where they have to somehow fix a time machine before any of the parts have been invented. It's a major departure for the series, which was usually more self-reflexive than this, but Robert Zemeckis is obviously having a hell of a time concocting a sci-fi western. The writing is sharp, the cast is as great as ever, and it ultimately brings one of the best movie trilogies to a satisfying close.
Howard Hughes built a jetpack and the Nazis want to use it to conquer the world. Fortunately, a wide-eyed pilot finds the contraption instead and uses it to become a hero in Joe Johnston's damn near perfect superhero movie The Rocketeer. The sci-fi angle isn't incidental: this film invents a technology and figures out how it would affect the world for the better, and the worse.
David Cronenberg's stab at virtual reality storytelling has more viscera than any of the other 1990s V.R. thrillers. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law hook themselves up by umbilical cord to a video game with bizarre rules and guns made out of meat, in an attempt to uncover a violent conspiracy. eXistenZ is a twisted and squirmy sci-fi thriller.
A mad scientist cannot dream, so he kidnaps children in order to steal theirs. It's a fairy tale nightmare from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a garish and immersive fantasy that uses science as a form of modern magic. And it's absolutely magical.
The urban legend about alien abductions came to terrifying life in Fire in the Sky, a film based on the (supposedly) true story of a logger who disappeared for five days and came back with a tale of horrible experimentation at the hands of extraterrestrials. Robert Lieberman's film focuses mostly on the mystery until the incredible climax, which is filled with horrifying alien abduction imagery that haunted the dreams of a whole generation.
What looked like just another Sylvester Stallone action movie turned out to be a wickedly funny sci-fi comedy about a future run by social conservatives, in which swearing is against the law, sex is against the law and practically everybody is a dweeb. Demolition Man refuses to be forgotten. It's just too distinctive and strange.
Darren Aronofsky's first film is a low budget sci-fi religious drama about a man who may have discovered the mathematical equation for god. Pi looks like it was photographed inside of Kafka's psyche, an eery place full of disturbing ideas and overbearing obsessions.
Chris Marker's brilliant French short La Jetée got stretched out to impressive effect in Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, a film that captures the spirit of the original and adds another, distinct flavor. Bruce Willis plays a man from a post-apocalyptic future who keeps traveling back in time to prevent a disaster, and unwittingly becomes entangled in an uncontrollable series of events.
The myth that the government has already made contact with aliens and is keeping the information secret from the citizenry is a disturbing idea. So Barry Sonenfeld turned it into cheerful workplace comedy starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as government schlubs who are responsible for keeping the conspiracy and fighting for the well-being of an unregistered extraterrestrial immigrant population. Dry humor abounds, and Smith and Jones have unmistakable, perfect comic chemistry.
A group of has-been sci-fi tv actors are recruited by aliens to relive their most iconic roles in Galaxy Quest, a love note to Star Trek fans and, in a roundabout way, one of the best Star Treks ever made... even though it isn't technically Star Trek. The characters aren't just funny, they're real people you immediately start to care about. And all the in-jokes amount to a glorious conclusion in which, funny or not, the stakes really do matter.
Arguably the best Star Trek movie (but certainly right up there), Nicholas Meyer's tale of political intrigue finds Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy framed for a political assassination that could tear the Federation apart. It's a clever allegory for the end of the Cold War, a period in which old dogs had to learn new tricks and everyone had to set aside their differences for the betterment of all. And it's a corker of an adventure too.
Andrew Niccol envisions a future where genetic manipulation has created a new kind of class warfare, in which some people are literally born better than others. Ethan Hawke plays a natural born citizen who impersonates a genetically superior man in order to achieve his dreams, but in so doing he lives a lie, constantly looking over his shoulder, unable to ever demonstrate the slightest weakness. Gattaca is a potent sci-fi story that will, sadly, probably always be relevant, even if we never start actually genetically modifying ourselves.
When people dream about making contact with alien life forms, Robert Zemeckis's Contact is how they imagine it will go down. Based on Carl Sagan's novel, Jodie Foster plays a doctor who discovers an alien signal but has to contend with government spooks and religious extremists in order to follow the clues to their logical conclusion. Gorgeous and impressively plausible, it's only the slightly cop-out ending that keeps Contact out of the top ten.
Luc Besson imagines a future that's colorful, bizarre and absolutely alive in The Fifth Element, which stars Bruce Willis as a cab driver who has to escort a godlike alien being on her mission to save the Earth. Brilliant editing and elaborate visuals unleash Besson's spring-loaded sense of humor in practically every frame. There was nothing quite like it in the 1990s, and sadly, few sci-fi films have followed The Fifth Element's suit ever since.
A young boy befriends a giant metal alien robot in Brad Bird's lovely 1950s throwback, an instant animated classic that sadly didn't find an audience in its own time. The Iron Giant is a universal saga of friendship and determination, and an important indictment of the Cold War paranoia that was holding back our progress as a species.
Jim Carrey plays a man who doesn't know that his entire life is a tv show. Ed Harris plays the producer whose job is to keep "Truman" oblivious and sated by mediocrity. And so begins an epic tale of perseverance directed by the great Peter Weir and written by the wily Andrew Niccol (Gattaca). Reality tv became popular after The Truman Show but this film still has a powerful impact, using conventions of television to create a world of constant existential dread.
Mamoru Oshii's stylish cyberpunk thriller tells the story of a cyborg on the hunt for a criminal who can hack into the minds of just about anybody, and create new realities in which they live. The ideas at play in Ghost in the Shell are mind-blowing, the action is unforgettable, but the filmmaking is pulled back, objective. It may be a cartoon and it may be sci-fi, but the original Ghost in the Shell feels real.
A man wakes up in a bathtub with no memory of who he is. All he knows is that the sun never rises, and at the same time every "night" the whole world goes to sleep... except for him. Alex Proyas' Dark City is a bottomless pit of German expressionism and sci-fi headiness, gloomy and gorgeous, brought to life like practically no film before it.
Paul Verhoeven took the unabashed military jingoism of Robert Heinlein's novel about space marines fighting alien bugs and transformed it into a subversive indictment of military-obsessed popular culture. Starship Troopers works as a big dumb action movie but it's designed as a fascist propaganda film, complete with too-young, too-attractive leads who learn valuable lessons about why all who oppose them are evil and why the best thing in life is to give your free will over to the state. That some audiences didn't get the joke speaks volumes about the insidiousness of action cinema, but those who picked up on Starship Troopers' cues noticed that it's one of the most damning and ingenious sci-fi movies ever produced.
The Wachowskis weren't the first filmmakers to use virtual reality as a storytelling mechanic but they were the ones who did it best, imagining a future in which mankind is hooked up to a computer simulation and nobody realizes their planet has been conquered by machines. Add groundbreaking action sequences and visual effects and you've got The Matrix, one of the best and smartest sci-fi movies ever made.
James Cameron took his low-budget sci-fi shocker The Terminator and evolved it into one of the biggest action movies in history, a retelling of the same basic story beats as the original but with all the characters taking different positions, and a new villain unlike anything ever seen in motion pictures before. Terminator 2 is a high water mark for the action and sci-fi genres, steeped in glorious mythology and endearing characters, with brilliant concepts brought to life through spectacular action.
It's hard to describe the feeling of watching Jurassic Park for the first time, during its original release. Steven Spielberg's film is in many respects a typical monster movie - scientists create dinosaurs, dinosaurs eat the scientists - but writ so large, using such incredible visual effects, that it felt completely new. Jurassic Park brought dinosaurs to life in a way never thought possible, and Spielberg knew exactly when to make us feel a sense of wonder, and when to twist that fantasy into a horrifying nightmare.
Paul Verhoeven's masterful Philip K. Dick adaptation stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a blue collar guy who buys memories of a vacation on Mars, only to discover that the memories are real... OR ARE THEY? Reality and fiction become interchangeable in Total Recall, one of the greatest mindfucks in movie history, a gloriously violent and elaborate production, and an ingenious satire of the way we project ourselves into our imaginary worlds. Maybe it's real. Maybe it's all a dream. Maybe it doesn't matter, and that's the most disturbing idea of all.