It was the decade of grunge, slackers, and a deep fear of Y2K; the walkman, dial-up modems, and combat boots. Will Smith was the king of the box office, Steven Spielberg released his masterpiece Schindler’s List, and “Must See TV” kept broadcast audiences captivated. The ‘90s are remembered for many things, but sci-fi and fantasy fare isn’t often one of them. While it could be argued that 1999’s The Matrix ushered in our current era of mind-bending plots and effects-heavy action, a lot of sci-fi and fantasy from the decade hasn’t maintained the same cultural ubiquity.
These movies and TV shows just aren’t remembered the way ‘80s stories from the genre are. Between Back to the Future, The Terminator, Blade Runner, and many, many more, sci-fi and fantasy works, the ‘80s is still very much part of the cultural conversation. On the other hand, much of the sci-fi and fantasy from the ‘90s has flown under the radar. The ‘90s had Independence Day, Jurassic Park, and Edward Scissorhands, but many of the other genre movies and TV shows from that time have been forgotten. Yet, there are numerous sci-fi and fantasy gems from the era that remain worth seeing. These are immersive and resonant stories that we can still connect with and be entertained by today. For some, these titles may barely ring a bell. For others, they may be blasts from the past. Either way, these 20 screen stories are worth revisiting — or watching for the very first time.
Face/Off took an expression of confrontation and made it literal, in glorious and ridiculous fashion. John Travolta and Nicholas Cage square off as an FBI agent and a criminal who swap faces via face transplants that also manage to give them the height and body type of the individual whose face they now sport.
As silly as it is, the movie’s set up is really beside the point. The best part about it is it leads to Cage’s bonkers pronouncement that “I want to take his face… off.” The film features Cage at his gonzo best. Also, it’s directed by John Woo, so the action scenes are over-the-top ballets of mayhem; well worth the price of admission.
19. MYSTERY MEN
Ben Stiller. William H. Macy. Janeane Garofalo. Paul Reubens. These are not names usually associated with superhero movies. But in Mystery Men, they teamed up to show superhero stories could be funny — and even inept superheroes can win the day.
Like many if the more deconstructionist “capes” stories today, this was a superhero movie that was sending up superhero stories. Given that our current glut of superhero movies wouldn’t start until almost a decade later, Mystery Men was ahead of its time. In many ways, though, that just makes it much more potent today. And with characters with very literal superhero names like The Bowler and The Shoveler, as well as a villain called Casanova Frankenstein, what’s not to love?
18. FOREVER KNIGHT
What if there was a vampire on the police force? That’s the question posed by the TV series Forever Knight. Nick Knight isn’t just a Toronto homicide detective working the night shift, he’s also an 800-year-old vampire. Knight is on a quest for redemption for the horror he wrought as a vampire and desperately wants to find a way to become human again.
Despite the main character’s vampire nature, this series often operates like a buddy cop procedural with Knight and his very human partner, Donald Schanke, investigating a case of the week, although Knight’s special abilities are often helpful to their work. Knight’s past does catch up with him, and as the series goes on we learn more and more about his epic backstory.
17. STRANGE DAYS
Strange Days is loaded with talent who are still making movies today. It was directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a story by James Cameron. It starred a shaggy-haired Ralph Fiennes, an unfortunately-wigged Tom Sizemore, and an almost unrecognizable Vincent D’Onofrio. But the best reason to see this film is Angela Bassett, who will make you wonder why she hasn’t starred in every film before and since.
Strange Days takes place over the final two days of 1999. As a tense Los Angeles simmers, Fiennes’ hustler, Lenny Nero, uncovers an unsettling mystery. The plot includes a pre-virtual reality vision of what virtual reality could become as well as a meditation on relations between African Americans and police officers that is still relevant today.
16. THE ROCKETEER
Before Joe Johnston brought Captain America: The First Avenger to life, he directed this quirky superhero one-off, based on the comic book of the same name. In 1938, when stunt pilot Cliff Secord finds a jet pack that lets him fly without an airplane, he adopts a secret identity as the Rocketeer in order to help people.
The movie combines a fictional story with real-world touches — Howard Hughes, the FBI, and the Nazis are all after Cliff’s jet pack. Mostly, though, the film is just a fun, action adventure. While the gender politics are a bit dated, with Cliff’s girlfriend, played by Jennifer Connelly, spending much of her time as a damsel in distress, The Rocketeer is still a charmer.
15. SEAQUEST DSV
If you’ve ever watched Star Trek and thought that what the show could really use is more water, then seaQuest is for you. In — ahem — 2018, after humans have used up almost all of Earth’s natural resources except what’s left on the ocean floor, the crew of the titular submarine must protect the colonies that have developed there while studying the ocean.
Between research missions and solving political disputes, the show focused on the relationships between the crew, which was led by a dignified Roy Scheider. There was also a talking dolphin named Darwin. The show became more fantastical and hokey as time went on and had fizzled out by its third season, but the first season is worth seeking out.
After the runaway success of 2017’s The Shape of Water, any entertainment buff knows that Guillermo del Toro loves monsters. When Mimic came out in 1997, audiences were less familiar with the director’s proclivities, but the movie was certainly a vivid introduction.
After eradicating disease-infested cockroaches with a genetically engineered insect, the citizens of Manhattan return to life as usual. That is, until the entomologist who created the new insects, played by Mira Sorvino, learns that not only has the species survived, they’ve evolved and can mimic human form. The movie is beautifully gross, with intricately constructed monsters and perfectly composed shots.
Contact was based on a novel by Carl Sagan and starred Jodie Foster as a scientist who becomes the first human being to make contact with alien life. The movie is sober and philosophical in its handling of its subject matter. The film delves into debates that are still going on today, like the one between science and religion.
Despite the fact that it’s more thoughtful than whiz-bang, the movie still manages to be entertaining. While special effects have certainly advanced since Contact’s release, the movie’s exploration of who should be the first to meet an alien species and what best represents humanity makes viewers think — even over 20 years later.
Movies and TV shows have let us explore many alternate Earths, but Sliders explored them all. The show, which initially starred Jerry O’Connell and John Rhys-Davies, follows a group of people who travel to a parallel universe only to get stuck. Unable to directly return to Earth as they know it, they slide between different Earths hoping to eventually find their own.
Despite a network change, cast shake-ups, and continuity issues due to some episodes airing out of order, the show lasted for five seasons. While the series didn’t completely live up to its potential amid all the changes, its first seasons with the original cast in tact are still an interesting watch.
11. GALAXY QUEST
Galaxy Quest has been back in the lime-light recently due to its parallels with the Seth MacFarlane series The Orville. However, the movie is its own hilarious, wildly entertaining thing. The plot revolves around the cast of a Star Trek-like TV show called Galaxy Quest. The show is over, so the cast spends their days at fan conventions meeting the show’s ardent followers.
When the crew meet aliens who have no concept of fiction and believe the show was a documentary, they find themselves in their own real-life alien adventure. Through the experience, the actors learn to live up to the show’s signature line: “Never give up. Never surrender.”
10. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH
Many people want to be movie stars, but the scenario from Being John Malkovich probably isn’t quite what they have in mind. Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, this fantastically weird film centers on a man who finds a portal into John Malkovich’s mind. For 15 minutes after entering the portal, a person can see through Malkovich’s eyes, feeling what he feels and controlling his body before being ejected into a ditch by the New Jersey turnpike.
Starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, and Catherine Keener, the film is trippy, surreal, and totally unique. More importantly, it features a game John Malkovich, whose presence makes the whole movie work.
9. EARTH 2
As its title suggests, the TV show Earth 2 focuses on the trials and tribulations of a group of people who attempt to colonize an Earth-like planet after our Earth is no longer habitable. The colonists soon find that the planet isn’t quite the Earth duplicate they originally believed, given the new planet is already settled by two different human-like species: the Grendlers, scavengers whose saliva can cure diseases (ewww!); and the Terrians, who communicate psychically and are deeply connected to the planet.
The show also features political intrigue, human-scale drama, and a survival story. Although it made a strong debut, Earth 2 only lasted one season because of a subsequent dip in the ratings. For 22 episodes, though, it was layered and interesting sci-fi.
8. THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN
Before Jean-Pierre Jeunet directed the whimsical Amelie, he co-directed this film (with Marc Caro). While The City of Lost Children can be whimsical, it’s also dark and tough. Starring Ron Perlman as a carnival strong man named One, who is determined to get his brother back after he’s kidnapped by a man who wants to steal his dreams, the movie offers a beautifully designed vision of a dystopian world.
In this world, it’s the children who are especially at risk. Instead of taking care of them, interested adults only want to exploit them. However, when the child-like One meets a girl named Miette, they team up to find his brother. The movie is stylized, odd, and there’s nothing else quite like it.
7. DARK SKIES
Dark Skies was designed to compete with The X-Files. Yet, while even all these years later we haven’t learned the truth The X-Files keeps insisting is out there, Dark Skies told an equally twisty but ultimately less obtuse aliens-are-among-us conspiracy story. The show built on the idea that aliens have been on Earth since the 1940s, manipulating history for their own purposes.
When the show begins in the 1960s, John Loengard and his girlfriend discover that the alien race — referred to as The Hive — is stealthily invading Earth by taking over the bodies of humans. The show was cancelled after only 20 episodes due to low ratings but still amassed a passionate fan base.
David Cronenberg rose to prominence for directing movies like The Fly and Dead Ringers. While eXistenZ isn’t as well known, it’s just as gripping. At a demo for her latest game, called eXistenZ, Allegra Geller, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, flees with her bodyguard Ted Pikul, played by Jude Law, after she and her game are targeted by assassins.
In order to test the damaged system, Geller and Pikul both enter the game, which taps into the user’s deepest emotions to create an experience that blurs the line between the real-world and the game’s fantasy world. The result is a trippy, disorienting thriller.
After creating The X-Files, Chris Carter created the series Millennium. It starred a stone-faced Lance Henriksen as Frank Black, a former FBI profiler who can see into the minds of killers. Black works for an organization called the Millennium Group investigating criminals both human and supernatural. As the series went on, it became clear that the Group’s agenda was more sinister than it originally appeared, and Black tries to expose them while keeping his daughter safe.
Millennium was dark and often genuinely scary, but it was also incredibly engrossing. The series lacked the levity that The X-Files often used to cut through the tension, though, which is perhaps why it only lasted three seasons. Yet, the dread the show generated worked for its gloomy subject matter.
In Gattaca, Ethan Hawke plays a man who dreams of going to space. The problem is that in the future in which he lives, human beings are engineered for perfection. Those that aren’t make up an underclass who don’t have the same opportunities, and Hawke’s character is part of that underclass. So, he takes on the identity of genetically superior man, uses his samples to pass DNA tests, and is assigned to a space mission through the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation.
Gattaca explores destiny and how society’s perceptions constrain people’s lives. It also took the idea of genetic engineering — a subject we’re still wrestling with today — to a nightmare conclusion. These thought-provoking themes make Gattaca cerebral, entertaining sci-fi.
3. THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR.
Bruce Campbell, the offbeat star of the Evil Dead franchise, stars as Brisco County, Jr., the title character of this series. A lawyer turned bounty hunter in 1893, Brisco is hired to capture a criminal and his gang.
While the show was ostensibly a Western, it mixed in elements of fantasy and sci-fi, and spiced everything up with a healthy dose of humor. Weird, futuristic technology appears throughout the show, helping Brisco and his posse in their mission. Plus, the mysterious, supernatural Orb is used in many episodes to drive the plot or help the characters right wrongs. Even though The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. only lasted 27 episodes before it was cancelled, the show’s unique blend of genres earned it a cult following.
2. DEFENDING YOUR LIFE
This comedy envisions an afterlife in which the recently deceased must justify the lives they lived before they can move to the next phase of existence. If an individual is judged to have moved past their fears they can move on, if not they’re sent back to Earth to give it another try. Albert Brooks, who also wrote and directed, stars as Daniel Miller, an expired man who spends his days at his trial, reviewing his not-especially-courageous life and his nights falling in love with Meryl Streep’s Julia, a brave and open woman.
1. DARK CITY
In a city that never sees the sun, a man wakes up without any knowledge of who he is. The man is John Murdoch and he is being pursued by both the police and a creepy group of beings called The Strangers. The Strangers are fascinated by human individuality and have set up the city to investigate the human mind. They are telekinetic and rearrange the city every night while also changing its citizens’ identities. However, Murdoch is telekinetic too, and uses his powers to take on the Strangers.
Dark City is atmospheric, suspenseful, and beautiful to look at with a seriously strange plot and uplifting ending. It’s a movie that grabs viewers from its first moments and doesn’t let go until its thrilling conclusion.
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