Badass Sci Fi’s Independence-Day-less ’90s Top Ten.
Posted On July 4, 2020
Alright, here we go. After way too much research and time spent trying to get the perfect screenshots, here are the ten best Badass Sci Fi movies the ’90s have to offer.
I enjoyed my little trip back through the ’90s, a decade widely considered inferior to the ’80s as far as genre flicks go. But based on this list, I think it holds up pretty well. You just have to dig a little deeper.
#10 ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996)
Y’all know I’m a sucker for John Carpenter. He was king in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s. But, the ’90s represented a choppy, downward trajectory for the success of his films.
Sure, he had a couple studio requisitioned turkeys in the ’90s (Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) and Village of the Damned (1995)), but I submit ‘his’ movies, the projects he was truly invested in, didn’t get worse, tastes just changed.
Certainly In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Escape from LA (1996), Vampires (1998), and even Ghosts of Mars (2001) are prime examples of Carpenter being Carpenter, and they’re all great.
During the mid to late ’90s, Escape from LA was one of the only movies in remember seeing multiple times on opening weekend (we’ll get to another further up the list). I think I was jonesing for a good, throwback sci fi flick, and he delivered.
The cast is outstanding. Kurt Russel is perfect as the older, more weathered and cynical Snake with an air of ‘not this shit again’ about him throughout.
In addition, you get super supporting and cameo turns by Steve Buschemi (Fargo), Pam Grier (Foxy Brown), Peter Fonda (Easy Rider), Valeria Golino (Hot Shots!), Cliff Robertson (Brainstorm), Stacy Keach (Class of 1999), and of course, Bruce.
Above all, this movie knows it’s a rehash. But that’s part of the fun of watching it, comparing the elements that mirror Escape From New York. From the crappy president, the short-lived love interest, the contest to stay alive, to the final ‘fuck you’ to the man. It’s iconic.
#9 THE FACULTY (1998)
It took me a couple viewings to fully appreciate Robert Rodriguez’ (From Dusk Till Dawn) The Faculty. As a creature feature, it’s not huge on the creature. Sure, you get glimpses of it at the end, but this movie is more about the insidious nature of conformity, much in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Certainly, the interplay of ‘The Faculty’ fascinated me. I’ll tell you right now, it doesn’t take an alien invasion to make shit like that happen, just standardized tests.
The staff players are incredible. Firstly, in another outstanding role, Robert Patrick nails it as the evil football coach. Bebe Neuwirth (Cheers) is perfect as the principal, and John Stewart stands out as science teacher Edward Furlong (T2 ?).
The student characters are serviceable, led by Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings), Josh Hartnett (30 Days of Night), and Clea DuVall (The Grudge), but Laura Harris (Dead Like Me) gives new meaning to the weird new girl.
#8 DEEP RISING (1998)
In direct contrast to The Faculty‘s relative restraint, you have the eminently enjoyable gorefest Deep Rising.
I mean, honestly, I get a little miffed when I think about this movie. What’s not to like? We have Rob Bottin (The Thing, Robocop) designed effects, and snappy writing and feverish direction from Stephen Sommers (The Mummy).
Plus, Deep Rising has a great cast led by Treat Williams (Dead Heat), Famke Janssen (doing double duty with The Faculty and SIX other films in 1998), Anthony Heald (Silence of the Lambs), Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator), and my favorite, Kevin J. O’Connor (Lord of Illusions).
Still, it bombed at the box office, though it has since gained a much-deserved cult following. It’s just a shame, because Deep Rising is fucking awesome, but for some reason, movies of its type just don’t make money, so they don’t get made anymore. So sad…
#7 ROBOCOP 2 (1990)
“What’s wrong with Robocop 2?”
“Well, it’s not as good as Robocop.”
“No shit. You know what else isn’t as good as Robocop?”
Robocop 2 suffers from a serious case of ‘pales by comparison’, but it’s a great movie. It didn’t shy away from the elements that made Robocop a classic, it doubled down. In fact, in some regards, it’s a better pure action film.
Directed by Irvin Kirshner, who helmed The Empire Strikes Back, and Co-written by Frank Miller (Sin City) and Walon Green (The Wild Bunch), the pace is frenetic.
Sure, some of the satirical elements seem awkward or forced when compared to Robocop, but that’s only because Paul Verhoeven is the king of that shit.
Peter Weller once again provides the stable epicenter, and Nancy Allen his sturdy partner. And no, Tom Noonan’s Cain is no Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker, because fucking nobody is, except maybe Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber.
#6 12 MONKEYS (1995)
Okay, can I just make Terry Gilliam my inaugural inductee into the Badass Sci Fi Director’s Hall of Fame? I don’t think the others will mind.
Not only did he direct 12 Monkeys, but Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), and The Zero Theorem (2013). On top of that, he’s the animator and only member of Monty Python not born in Britain (though he has been naturalised).
His surreal style is so iconic and revolutionary, you can recognize a Gilliam movie from the first frame. Plus, recurring themes of imagination and dystopian reality weave through multiple films, creating divergent trilogies.
Then there’s Brad Pitt’s amazing performance as Jeffrey Goines. Sublime.
Bruce Willis is good as well. It’s interesting, as I write about this movie and the next one on the list, how Mr. Willis provides a somewhat calm epicenter in a sea of madness in each. He does this very well, and I respect him for that.
#5 THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)
One of these films is not like the others. Da-da-da. And yes, it breaks the R-rated rule, being PG-13. I hope you can forgive me, and if you can’t, here’s Milla Jovovich’s nipples.
Sorry (sort of) to be crass, but certain standards need to be maintained.
Anyway, The Fifth Element is an amazing movie, no matter the rating. First, you have the fabulous visual style of director Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional). I seriously dig Luc Besson. Lucy (2014) is fascinating to me, and if I can squint enough to remove Dane DeHaan from the picture, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) is dazzling. I hope its failure doesn’t discourage Mr. Besson from continuing to push the visual envelope.
Second, The Fifth Element never ceases to amaze me with how every detail is accentuated for maximum entertainment value. For instance, every character is well drawn and quirky, no matter how small the role.
Certainly Gary Olman (The Dark Night), Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister (Universal Soldier), Brion James (Blade Runner), Chris Tucker (Friday), and Milla are great.
Additionally, Mr. Willis admirably lets the visual hurricane surround him, but I believe the recently departed Ian Holm provides the soul of this movie. You see his character juxtaposed against the others, and you know he’s fully invested. He’ll be missed.
#4 TOTAL RECALL (1990)
Total Recall came out when I was in college (ugh!), and all I wanted to do when I got home from Des Moines, Iowa for the summer was find one movie I could wait in line for at one of the biggest single-screen theaters in town (The Continental, The Cooper, or The Paramount).
This is way back when the big summer releases happened around Memorial Day, not late April. You could tell a movie was a big budget blockbuster by the opening credits. They went straight for the title and the action.
Total Recall is, without a doubt, a spectacular, inventive, bloody, hilarious blockbuster in every sense of the word. It’s Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven at the height of their powers. Rob Bottin as well.
It also leaves me with a vague feeling of disappointment every time I watch it (which is often). I can tell director and star aren’t perfectly matched, which may add to its appeal in some areas.
Above all, ironically, almost shockingly, the film seems constrained, like Verhoeven wanted it to be even bigger. I think about the scenes in the subway, Venusville, and the alien ruins and wonder what it could’ve looked like If Verhoeven had even Starship Troopers level tech.
But hey, you got this…
#3 THE MATRIX (1999)
Revolutionary. Groundbreaking. Often imitated, never duplicated. What can you say about The Matrix that hasn’t already been said. It’s the gold standard for cyberpunk science fiction, paved the way for gravity-defying, Asian influenced action to this day, and inspired a generation of would-be techno-hipsters to wear sunglasses and trench coats.
The Matrix was the Wachowski’s big break. You can just go ahead and put them in the BSF Director’s HOF as well. Their subsequent projects, including the remainder of the Matrix franchise, V For Vendetta (2005), which they wrote, Cloud Atlas (2012), and Jupiter Ascending (2015), while not as Earth-shattering, are just as ambitious and dazzling.
I suppose you’d have to say it was perfectly cast, though I think the roles consume the actors, not vice versa.
Though Lawrence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving always excel.
#2 TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991)
What the Wachowskis did for sci fi in the late ’90s, James Cameron did for sci fi in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Beginning with The Abyss (1989), Cameron helped pioneer and mainstream the use of digital effects, even though what we see is less than seven minutes in the two movies combined.
T2 came out a year after Total Recall, and put a spectacular capper on my home for summer routine.
Say what you will about this being a rehash as well. With T2, it’s not (entirely) about the story, it’s about the execution. I compare it to Evil Dead/Evil Dead II and Escape From New York/Escape from LA.
It’s about an artist, Sam Raimi, John Carpenter, or James Cameron, fulfilling a vision. Maybe they weren’t satisfied with the end result the first time. So, they decided to try to fulfill it again, and do it a whole lot fucking better the second time around.
Sure, there’s an intimacy and novelty that’s stripped away the second time around. But in the case of T2, everything works. It is one of the most perfect action movies of all time because it’s the work of a master artist at the top of his game.
The enjoyment of cinema comes from the feelings a film elicits when we watch it. From the bar scene, to the mall fight scene between Arnie and Robert Patrick and their respective stunt doubles.
But shit, every scene works. T2 is an emotional terminator, and I end up being John’s foster dad.
#1 STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997)
As great as T2 is, the reason it’s not #1 is, ironically, its relentless pursuit of greatness. Its morality can be overwhelming at times. Self-important? Yes. Deservedly so? Probably. Kind of a downer. Yee-es.
Where James Cameron wants to send you a message, Paul Verhoeven is a provocateur, plain and simple. If you haven’t already, you should check out You Don’t Nomi (2019), produced, edited, and directed by Jeffrey McHale.
It’s a documentary chronicling the making, release, and legacy of Verheoven’s 1995 flop Showgirls, but it also does a great job of encapsulating Verhoeven’s career. Here’s the link.
Starship Troopers is just fun; gory, campy, trashy fun. Moreover, the special effects are fucking spectacular. I mean, I can’t think of another military/space opera sci fi movie that rivals it. Certainly not an R rated one.
Of course, all the characters are goofballs.
That’s part of the fun.
Sorry, I’m getting a little carried away. But seriously (or not so much) the actors are hamming it up because Verhoeven wants them to. You don’t get Michael Ironside (Total Recall), Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie), Casper Van Dien (Tarzan and the Lost City), Dina Meyer (Johnny Mnemonic), Jake Busey (The Frighteners), Clancy Brown (Highlander), Seth Gilliam (The Wire), Marshall Bell (Total Recall), and Amy Smart (Crank) together and expect them to play it straight.
No, if I just want to kick back and be entertained and titillated, there’s no better Badass Sci Fi movie from the ’90s than Starship fucking Troopers. It’s the other mid to late ’90s movie I saw multiple times on opening weekend.
And if you have any doubts about Paul Verhoeven’s craftsmanship and attention to detail, I offer you this…
And there you have it. Whew, that was fun! How’d I do? Did I forget your favorite Badass Sci Fi flick from the ’90s? Let me know in the comments.