The 1990s was a post-Star Wars era, and science fiction was totally in the mainstream. Ultimately, that was good for the genre, because sci-fi movies could explore totally new terrain. Some of the best sci-fi movies of the decade offered up familiar thrills, but others got deeply philosophical, and proved that sci-fi was a great way to tackle big ideas.
The sci-fi movies of this era also reinvented what movies could be. There are great performances scattered throughout this list, and not all of them are from the actors you might expect. The best ’90s sci-fi movies are smart, but they’re also a lot of fun, and it’s that combination that has allowed them to stand the test of time.
One of the more contemplative movies on this list, Contact takes the question of contact with an alien species very seriously, and even features White House meetings in which the spiritual implications are discussed. Part of what makes Contact worthy of this list, though, is that it manages to take the premise of alien contact into a totally new direction. It’s a contemplation of mortality, and of what we’re really looking for when we stare up at the sky at night. It’s sentimental, but it comes by the emotions that it wrings out of its audience honestly.
9. Total Recall
Paul Verhoven’s vision of the future is a wonderful mix of new technologies and decrepit capitalism, and Total Recall brings that vision to life from its very first moments. The movie follows a regular construction worker who, because he’s played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is obviously really a superspy who has had his memory wiped. Total Recall is wonderfully ambiguous about what’s real and what isn’t, but the movie works because it’s a total thrill to watch either way. Verhoven’s future is a place you’d never want to visit, but it’s a great place to look in on from the comfort of your couch.
8. Mars Attacks!
A satirical look at what an alien invasion might mean, Mars Attacks! is Tim Burton at his absolute wackiest, and the movie is all the better for it. The film tells the sprawling story of how Earth reacts to an invasion of martians, and takes a truly nihilistic view of what would happen in the aftermath. What makes Mars Attacks! so great, though, is that it features Jack Nicholson playing two characters, as well as central performances from singer Tom Jones and former football star Jim Brown. It’s a sprawling ensemble cast, but every element works in concert with Burton’s dry, acerbic sense of humor.
7. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
James Cameron’s Terminator sequel is a much more sentimental movie than the first installment, but it’s also the movie that proved once and for all that he could tell stories on an absolutely massive scale. Set seven years after the first film, this movie follows a good version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 as he protects a young John Connor from a more advanced model. The movie features a number of thrilling set pieces, a remarkably tight plot, and Linda Hamilton’s incredible biceps, all of which make it one of the best sequels ever made.
6. Men in Black
Will Smith was already a movie star when Men in Black came out, but Men in Black was proof that there was no one bigger. Smith plays a regular cop who finds himself pulled into the world of interterrestrial law enforcement, and ultimately proves to be a good fit for the job. The movie is funny, sharply written, and features great work from Tommy Lee Jones and Vincent D’Onofrio in addition to Smith’s great central performance. A pretty perfect piece of popcorn entertainment, Men in Black may not have the scale of some modern blockbusters, but that’s part of its ultimate appeal.
5. 12 Monkeys
A time travel epic from director Terry Gilliam, 12 Monkeys may feature one of the finest performances of Bruce Willis’s career. The film tells the story of a man who is sent back in time to prevent an apocalyptic event. Not only does he fail, but he realizes that he actually witnessed his own death as a child. The movie is bleak and haunting, but it’s also thrilling and well designed. Based on the French film La Jetée, 12 Monkeys takes the story’s bleak heart and makes it completely its own, and it does so in thrilling fashion.
4. Starship Troopers
The kind of satire that only Paul Verhoven is capable of, Starship Troopers is set in a future in which military service is valued above all else, and the false valor of dying for your country or even your planet is laid bare. Starship Troopers is also about the kind of imperialism that ignores which force invaded. The soldiers in this movie fight a species known as the “bugs,” and when they discover at the end of the movie that their enemy is afraid, they rejoice. Between thrilling action setpieces, Starship Troopers has a lot on its mind, and it isn’t afraid to say any of it.
3. Galaxy Quest
Perhaps one of the most successful comedy spoofs ever put to screen, virtually every element of Galaxy Quest works tremendously. The film tells the story of a group of actors on a Star Trek-esque TV show who find themselves in the middle of an actual intergalactic war. While that may sound far-fetched, the movie works because basically every member of the cast treats it that way. Alan Rickman and Tony Shalhoub are particularly phenomenal here, as is Enrico Colantoni. The movie’s emotional core may be simple, but it’s also undeniably moving.
2. The Matrix
A movie so genre-busting that it had to be a phenomenon, The Matrix is still a wonder more than 20 years later. Telling the story of a young computer programmer who discovers that he’s living in a computer simulation, the movie’s mythology is so elegantly doled out that you don’t even realize that the incredible action movie you’re watching is also deeply philosophical. The Matrix broke the mold not just in its storytelling, but also in the way it was made. The innovative filmmaking on display here is still imitated today, but no one has done it better than the Wachowskis did it in this first installment.
1. Jurassic Park
The Jurassic World movies have only further cemented the deep truth that Jurassic Park is almost a miracle. The movie, which Steven Spielberg released the same year as Schindler’s List, is a triumph of computer-generated animation that holds up astonishingly well 30 years later. What’s more, the film’s script is water tight, and all of its central performances are thoroughly compelling. Jurassic Park is one of the pinnacles of blockbuster filmmaking, and whatever you think of the many movies that came in its wake, it’s hard to deny the astounding power of that first installment.