19 March 2013

Science Fiction films of the 90s

Here are my favourite Science Fiction films of the 1990s.

No less than four of them feature time travel.


Filmed back-to-back with Part II, the story takes off from where the previous one ended. Doc Brown is stranded in Hill Valley in 1885, without fuel to return home. It's up to Marty to find the Delorean where Doc hid it in the 19th Century, refuel it, and then travel back in time once again to save the day.

Nods to classic westerns (Marty's arrival at the train station echoes Claudia Carnivale's entrance in Once Upon A Time In The West), western tropes (gunfights in the streets) and jokes (Marty uses the alias "Clint Eastwood", and wears the trademark poncho from the Man With No Name trilogy) abound in this third entry in the Back To The Future series.

A lot of fun. And as is the case with many of these types of films, way more "fiction" than "science".

9. STARGATE (1994)

Who built the pyramids? Were ancient Egyptian gods actually alien overlords? These are questions that Egyptologist Dr Daniel Jackson (James Spader) asks, but he can't find anyone willing to listen. That is, until the military ask for his help decoding hieroglyphs on a large stone ring that was dug up in Egypt. The ring is the Stargate of the title, a portal to a far-off planet where the locals all speak a dialect of ancient Egyptian.

Stargate may be perhaps more known now for the various TV series that it inspired. It has a more serious tone than "Stargate: SG-1". Colonel Jack O'Neil (Kurt Russell) is a very different kind of military man than the Jack O'Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) of the TV show. The movie is based on an interesting premise, and works as a good adventure movie, almost like Indiana Jones in space. (And it's slightly more plausible than the actual Indiana Jones movie with aliens.)

8. MEN IN BLACK (1997)

SF mixes with comedy in this film based on an early 90s comic book series. Tommy Lee Jones plays K, who recruits J (Will Smith) into a top-secret government agency tasked with monitoring extraterrestrial activity on earth.

When a nasty alien bug crash-lands on Earth, and a priceless treasure is stolen from a murdered alien royal, the entire fate of the planet rests in the hands of the Men In Black. They are given a "standard galactic week" (24 hours) to return the treasure and save the world. Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith are excellent in their roles, the cranky-old-guy/wisecracking-young-guy routine working well between them. The creature effects, both practical and CGI, are effective, and most of the jokes work.

7. THE MATRIX (1999)

As over-hyped as I think the Matrix films were (particularly the sequels, in my opinion), there is a lot I enjoy about the first one. Fantastic effects, such as the much-used-since-then "bullet time", are used to great advantage. The post-apocalyptic messianic storyline itself borrows from many sources (Alice In Wonderland, The Karate Kid, and Ghost In The Shell to name a few), but puts them all together into an enjoyable whole.

Keanu Reeves plays hacker Neo, who learns that "reality" is in fact an artificial reality constructed for the human race, and that in the real world humanity is fighting back against the computers and AI that have long since won the war.

Stylish special and visual effects abound in this film, including the much-copied-since "bullet time" where the camera moves around a subject with extremely high frame-rate, creating slow motion. It also has some impressive fight choreography, thanks in large part to Hong Kong stunt coordinator and kung fu veteran Yuen Wo Ping ("Drunken Master", "Once Upon A Time In China").


"The Fifth Element" has a screenplay based on a story writer/director Luc Besson wrote as a teenager. While that does show a little, it also helps the film's sense of comic-book fun. It's a little bit "Star Wars" meets "Stargate" meets "Blade Runner", but never takes itself as seriously as any of those films.

Several alien races, and human factions, are all in a race to find a legendary weapon, the "Fifth Element" of the title, to stop (or in some cases assist) a great evil force from wiping out the universe.

Bruce Willis plays Korben Dallas, an ex-military taxi driver, who ends up looking after runaway mystery woman Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), cloned from a cell found in an ancient artifact. Gary Oldman is in his chameleonic element as over-the-top corporate villain Zorg.


Inspired by the French black-and-white short film "Le Jetee", director (and former Python) Terry Giliam brings us the story of Cole (Bruce Willis), a man from a post-apocalyptic future haunted in dreams by images from his past. He is sent on a mission into that same past, to try and uncover the causes of a plague that caused the world's downfall, and help the authorities stop it ever happening.

In our present, Cole winds up committed to an asylum. Bruce Willis plays the part well, and for some of the film you start to doubt (as Madeleine Stowe's psychiatrist character does) whether he is in fact sane at all. Here he meets Jeffrey (Brad Pitt), a rich kid spouting conspiracy theories and political rants against his super-rich industrialist father.

One of my favourite time travel movies ever, and certainly my favourite Terry Gilliam film.


Spielberg's dinosaur-cloning movie is coming back to theatres this year after being converted to 3D. I can see the appeal, and hope it will be better than Star Wars: Episode 1's conversion (3D makes planets and spaceships look cool, but it can't make a weak story better, George).

This film (and the book it is based on) were massive hits in the 90s. Helpfully, author Michael Crichton co-wrote the screenplay (with David Koepp), so it remains for the most part faithful to the original in its adaptation to the big screen. Eccentric wealthy philanthropist John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has created what he thinks is the ultimate attraction - using cutting-edge DNA cloning research to bring dinosaurs back into a cross between a theme park and a zoo. He brings along a selection of scientists (Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum), a lawyer, and his own grandchildren, for a grand preview.

The theme of man playing God has been in science fiction for a long time, ever since the work widely considered the first SF novel, "Frankenstein". And as is often the case in such stories, what can go wrong, will. Already suffering technical problems, the park loses power as a hurricane approaches. Hammond tries to laugh off early issues with his park, citing the problems Disneyland went through on first opening. Mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm (Goldblum) responds with a great line: "Yeah, but when Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don't eat the tourists."

Twenty years later, the dinosaurs - a combination of puppetry, robotics, and CGI, and a triumph from Stan Winston's workshop - are still impressive. From the first shot of a brachiosaur grazing the treetops, to the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the finale, there's not a (giant) foot wrong. I'm looking forward to re-seeing it for the first time, in 3D.


At the end of "The Terminator", we thought the future had been saved. So did Sarah Connor, now locked up in a mental institution. So did her teenage delinquent son John (Edward Furlong). Until once again, two figures travel back in time. This time, they are both cyborgs. One is an advanced model, capable of shape-shifting, and is hell-bent on eliminating John Connor. The other is Arnold Schwarzenegger, this time playing another Terminator (same make as last time, but different model) re-programmed by the adult Connor to be a bodyguard for his teenage self.

(The reveal that Arnie's character is a good guy this time makes a nice surprise, but is also spoiled by any trailers or reviews that have appeared in the 20 years since this film came out, hence no "Spoiler" tags.)

James Cameron can make a decent action movie, and this one benefits from Linda Hamilton's bulking up to play mom-turned-superwarrior Sarah Connor. Gone is the timid waitress with 80s hairstyles, and in her place is a muscle-bound woman who knows her way around a machine gun. There is also more humour in the sequel, thanks to the interactions between young Connor and his new guardian, as the young man tries to teach the robot slang and swearing.

The time travel in these films rely on several loops and paradoxes, toeing the line between unwritten futures (destroying the computer chips can prevent future cyborg armies) and predestined events (the holocaust of Judgment Day can be postponed, but will always occur).


This was the second feature film to feature the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The first had been the promising (in concept) but disappointing (in execution) "Generations", featuring several cast members from The Original Series. "First Contact" continues the so-called rule that the even-numbered Trek films are better than their odd-numbered counterparts. It features one of my favourite villain alien races, the Borg, who after a losing battle with the Enterprise, travel back in time to assimilate the earth.

Picard and Co follow the Borg back in time, to find themselves in the year 2063. After killing the Borg, they have a harder mission to accomplish: to make sure that Zefram Cochrane still succeeds in his first test flight of a working Warp Drive. As they know from their history books, it is the radiation signature of this test flight that attracts the attention of some passing Vulcans, who figure the human race are technologically advanced by now to cope with First Contact with extraterrestrial visitors, and lay the foundations for the future Federation.

"Generations" was an uneven film, straddling the continuities of TOS and TNG. Production also began while the final season of TNG was still being filmed. Here, two years after their last televised episode, the Next Generation cast really get a chance to shine. This is my favourite of the four films featuring the Next Gen cast.

1. DARK CITY (1998)

I won a ticket to a preview screening of this when it first came out. Knowing little about it, I went along and enjoyed every second of it.

If you haven't seen it before, watch the Director's Cut (now available). The main difference is the elimination of the opening voiceover from the theatrical version, which explains the sci-fi premise of the film immediately (Aliens have created a city floating through space as a giant lab maze in which they can study the human soul via experimenting on our memories), rather than letting us wonder through the opening noir-ish mystery. It works so much better as this mystery, where we can ask questions: who are these mysterious men in black coats; why do the citizens fall asleep simultaneously; is it ever morning?

Part noir, part supernatural thriller, part science fiction, it is a brilliant film from Australian director Alex Proyas.

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