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Jurassic Park, Men in Black, The Matrix, and more: The best ’90s sci-fi movies

Jurassic Park and more great 90's sci-fi classics

A t-rex roaring in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

The ’90s saw a full flourishing of science fiction as a genre. As special effects continued to improve, and geek culture continued to make its way closer and closer to the center of our broader cultural understanding, science fiction became an important vehicle for understanding the world around us. Sci-fi in the ’90s took a wide array of different forms in this decade, but the movies on this list represent the best of what the decade had to offer. What’s more, they’re some of the very best sci-fi movies you’re likely to find on any streaming service, period.

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix
Genre Action, Science Fiction
Stars Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
Directed by Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
No ’90s sci-fi movie was a bigger phenomenon than The Matrix. The film, which tells the story of a computer programmer who discovers that his entire reality is a lie, was widely acclaimed, and went on to become one of the highest-grossing movies of the decade. Although it’s easy now to make fun of some of The Matrx‘s core ideas, those who do so ignore the movie’s fundamental appeal. In combining the stylish action of Hong Kong action movies with a story about personal revelation, The Matrix found a massive audience and fundamentally changed the way movies were made.
The Matrix (1999) Official Trailer #1 - Sci-Fi Action Movie

Strange Days (1995)

Strange Days
Genre Crime, Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller
Stars Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
An underseen gem well worth your time, Strange Days feels just as relevant today as it did almost 30 years ago. The film is set in a dystopian version of 1999 in which many people spend much of their time jacked into systems that allow them to feel like they’re living the experiences of someone else. The movie’s L.A. setting directly invokes the beating of Rodney King, and the movie is unafraid of tackling the biggest questions we face around race and policing. Few movies on this list are bleaker than Strange Days, but thanks to Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett, the movie is endlessly watchable anyway.
"Strange Days (1995)" Theatrical Trailer

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Genre Action, Thriller, Science Fiction
Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong
Directed by James Cameron
James Cameron’s 1991 Terminator sequel is usually somewhere on the list of the greatest sequels ever made, and that’s because it’s able to build on its predecessor in truly fascinating ways. When the first Terminator was released, Arnold Schwarzenegger was still a bodybuilder, but by the time T2 rolls around, he’s a bona fide movie star, which is part of the reason his T-800 is allowed to join the good guys this time around. At once a thrilling action movie and a marvel of special effects, T2 still holds up today as one of the great sequels ever made. If only they had stopped after this one.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall
Genre Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Few directors are as completely imaginative as Paul Verhoeven, and Total Recall gives him a chance to show off what he could do with a real budget. The movie follows a construction worker living in the future who discovers that he may actually be a secret agent who has had his memory wiped. From there, he goes on a sprawling adventure that ultimately leads him to Mars. Thanks to some wonderful special effects and a decidedly trippy plot, Total Recall remains an enduring classic and one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best movies.

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Twelve Monkeys
Genre Science Fiction, Thriller, Mystery
Stars Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Adapted from one of the greatest French short films ever made, Twelve Monkeys tells the story of a man who is sent back in time to prevent the apocalypse. As Bruce Willis’s James Cole navigates the 1990s, he discovers that his mission won’t be as easy as it seems. Willis gives one of his very best performances in the role, which gave him a chance play a character who is both fascinated and disgusted by the world he returns to. Add in a manic but electrifying supporting turn from Brad Pitt (not quite enough to make it onto our list of his best movies), and Twelve Monkeys easily earns its spot on this list. 
12 Monkeys Official Trailer #1 - Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt Movie (1995) HD

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park
Genre Adventure, Science Fiction
Stars Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Perhaps the greates special effects feat on this entire list, Steven Spielberg’s island of reanimted dinosaurs is still one of the most thrilling films ever made 30 years after its release. Telling the story of a group of scientists who are brought to a deserted island and discovered that dinosaurs have been brought back to life there, Jurassic Park was proof that computer animation could be seamlessly integrated into the world of movies. Spielberg’s sharp direction and a dynamic screenplay certainly didn’t hurt, creating one of the most thrilling phenomena the moviegoing public had ever seen in the process.

Jurassic Park (1993) Theatrical Trailer

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Galaxy Quest
Genre Comedy, Science Fiction, Adventure
Stars Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman
Directed by Dean Parisot
A parody of Star Trek, and of science fiction more generally, Galaxy Quest is also one of the greatest comedies ever made. Telling the story of the washed-up cast of a Star Trek-like show as they are mistakenly whisked away into an actual space adventure, the movie manages to be both outrageously funny and surprisingly moving, especially in its third act. Thanks to incredible work from Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Sam Rockwell, and Tony Shalhoub most of all, Galaxy Quest is a wild ride that should have gotten more sequels than the actual Star Trek movies.
Galaxy Quest (1999) Theatrical Trailer

Men in Black (1997)

Men in Black
Genre Action, Adventure, Comedy, Science Fiction
Stars Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
There was a time when movies could be hugely popular and under 2 hours, and Men in Black is all the proof you need. Telling the story of an Earth-based agency tasked with defending the planet from the aliens that live amongst us, the movie is the perfect combination of a wacky comedy and a spy thriller. Will Smith is at the peak of his powers here, and he’s matched by Tommy Lee Jones as the scene partner we never knew he needed. Although the sequels failed to live up to the magic of this first installment, there’s no denying the original Men in Black and its many charms.
MEN IN BLACK [1997] - Official Trailer (HD)

Contact (1997)

Genre Drama, Science Fiction, Mystery
Stars Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Perhaps the most emotional sci-fi movie on this list, Contact is a fairly grounded drama that imagines what it would be like if Earth made contact with extraterrestrial life. Starring Jodie Foster in one of her best turns, Contact spends much of its time weighing the philosophical and religious implications of this kind of event, and is always careful to ground the story its telling in the emotions of its central characters. The movie’s final act, which is a mind-bending set piece that speaks to the power of love to transcend time and space, proves that Christopher Nolan wasn’t the first one to think up that conceit.
Contact (1997) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

The Iron Giant (1999)

The Iron Giant
Genre Family, Animation, Science Fiction, Drama
Stars Vin Diesel, Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston
Directed by Brad Bird
Telling the story of a boy who finds a giant robot and becomes its friend against the backdrop of Cold War hysteria, The Iron Giant holds up more than 20 years later as an enduring animated classic. Thanks to hand-drawn animation that still holds up, and a compelling story that echoes others like E.T. while offering plenty of its own unique spin, The Iron Giant is sentimental, no doubt, but it earns the tears that will inevitably start welling in your eyes the second the movie reaches its climax.
The Iron Giant: Signature Edition - Official Trailer [HD]

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Joe Allen
Joe Allen is a freelance culture writer based in upstate New York. His work has been published in The Washington Post, The…
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