17. Galaxy Quest (1999)
Lampooning the Star Trek fanboy phenomenon in an affectionate pastiche of posturing and dry wit, Dean Parisot’s Galaxy Quest takes what could be a one-joke misfire and makes a satirical movie spoof that’s more brilliant and indelible than it ought to be.
The usual sci-fi serial suspects are rounded up, including an ultra-masculine space captain (Tim Allen), come-hither token female sexpot (Sigourney Weaver), slumming Shakespearian actor, now typecast (Alan Rickman), and a randomly doomed, soon-to-be-killed-off actor (Sam Rockwell), amongst them, each mistaken for their fictional counterparts in an intergalactic war that is, alas, the real deal.
Galaxy Quest is so whip smart, in-joke obsessed, yet easy to appreciate, that even the two or three people on the planet that don’t appreciate Star Trek and its ilk can still enjoy it. And Tim Allen isn’t as shrill as you’d expect, either. It’s a smart send-up with mass appeal.
16. Strange Days (1995)
The dying days of the 20th century in Los Angeles is the setting for Kathryn Bigelow’s voyeuristic sci-fi fantasy noir, Strange Days. Perhaps owing more than a sharp salute to Michael Powell’s maligned and misunderstood Peeping Tom (1960), Bigelow’s underworld thriller is one of pressing urgency and last minute desperation, anchored by lead actors Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett, and buoyed by James Cameron’s and Jay Cocks’ sharp script.
Set in a crumbling L.A. at the ass end of 1999, Lenny Nero (Fiennes) is an ex-LAPD detective, now a black marketeer of underground electronics, namely illegal SQUID (superconducting quantum interference device) devices that latch on to one’s cerebral cortex, taking wiretapping, and vicarious surveyance for the new millennium to the next level.
Fans of William Gibson’s Neuromancer novel and subsequent cyberpunk hot sellers will easily surrender to Strange Days’ cadency, the social commentary is startling, and the hard-edged antihero is never less than gripping. Strange Days indeed.
15. eXistenZ (1999)
Revisiting his favorite provocative themes of body horror and sci-fi surrealism, David Cronenberg’s disturbing, and disorienting film eXistenZ was somewhat overshadowed on it’s initial release by the similarly mind bending Matrix, this film is the more studious of the two.
For the Cronenberg cult it’s perhaps easy to draw a line from his avant-garde showpiece Videodrome to this milder but no less distressing companion film. Here instead of commenting on TV ethnology and voyeurism, eXistenZ looks at video game culture, imagining near ubiquitous “game pods”––virtual reality game consoles––all the rage, having replaced traditional electronic consoles in a near-future bedeviled with distraction.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is Allegra Geller, a renowned game designer about to unleash her latest, the titular “eXistenZ” en masse. Jude Law is Ted Pikul, a security guard who will pair with Allegra after extremists want her dead.
Cronenberg, who was partially inspired by the Fatwa that Muslim extremists placed on Salman Rushdie after the publication of his brilliant novel, “The Satanic Verses”––Allegra, ostensibly taking the Rushdie role––takes pains to inject humor and levity amidst his upsetting sci-fi horror hubris. Recommended.
14. Gattaca (1997)
Andrew Niccol’s uncompromising and unsettling sci-fi fantasy yarn takes the nature versus nurture theme as far as it will go and the results are provocative, suspenseful, and deeply absorbing. Set in a futuristic society where eugenics is prevalent and genotype profiling helps classify everyone lastingly as either “valids”, who get specialized careers, or “in-valids”, who get menial jobs.
Ethan Hawke is Vincent Freeman, an in-valid at Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, but in no time Vincent finds himself posing as a valid, with a new identity, that of Jerome Morrow, but how long can this existential subterfuge be maintained?
Niccol brilliantly blends suspense, philosophical treatise, surveillance cinema, and stylish sleight of hand making Gattaca an especially effective speculative fiction with immaculate (and Oscar nominated) art direction and an A-list cast that also includes Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Gore Vidal, and Alan Arkin.
13. The Truman Show (1998)
Aussie auteur Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock) and gifted sci-fi screen scribe Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) are both at the top of their game in this brilliantly realized, emotionally involving, serrated satire on TV obsession, The Truman Show.
Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), born and raised on camera, has no idea that he’s the star of the most popular TV show on the planet, and that a massive audience has been following his every movement. For Truman, his life is just like anyone’s. He grew up, went to school, made friends, hit puberty, had girlfriends, got married, and now goes to work each day, dreaming of better things ahead, oblivious to his celebrity or that his life is the most watched TV show in history.
By the time the show’s man-behind-the-curtain Christof (Ed Harris) antes up, the spooky surreality and surveyance has reached dazzling crescendo.
12. The Iron Giant (1999)
Springing from the 1968 Ted Hughes source novel of the same name is an imposing metal robot, crash-landed in 1950s mid-America––Rockwell, Maine, to be exact. It’s a credit to director Brad Bird that The Iron Giant is now widely considered an animated classic, one of undoubting friendship, and tolerance in a sometimes hostile adult world.
Here the anti-communist paranoia of the 50s is at a fever pitch, period details are delightfully accurate, and in no time the audience, like the young boy, Hogarth (memorably voiced by Eli Marienthal), who befriends the Iron Giant, are soon smitten by his sincerity and fragility. And the giant (voiced by Vin Diesel), while intimidating in stature, is an animated beauty, emotive and full of grace.
The artistry on display recalls Hayao Miyazaki, Bird’s primary influence, and fans of the esteemed Japanese animator will find much to admire here. Poignant, persuasive, and impressive entertainment that the whole family will treasure, The Iron Giant is a colossal conquering hero.
11. The City of Lost Children (1994)
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s second feature film collaboration with Marc Caro––after 1991’s Delicatessen (see #5 on this list)––is a way-out weird chef d’oeuvre you’ll never forget.
Combining steampunk aesthetic with a compelling discernable retro-futuristic dystopia that recalls, amongst other antecedents, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Jeunet and Caro do grandiose world-building like no other. Some of the credit certainly belongs to editor Herve Schneid and cinematographer Darius Khondji, and the resulting expressionistic fantasia is first-rate.
The plot involves the deranged scientist Krank(Daniel Emilfork), obsessed with immortality but living a dreamless existence, he steals dreams from kidnapped children, nightmares mostly, in order to live forever. Aiding the children is One (Ron Perlman), a carnival strongman, in an epic good-versus-evil fairy tale narrative that also includes Dominique Pinon’s dazzling and convulsive turn as an amnesiac diver with many, many clones.
Also in on the action; a mechanical Cyclops, an incubating brain, an agreeable octopus, Siamese twins, trained tick infiltrators, and the coolest assortment of oddball gadgets and thingamajigs this side of Philip Pullman or perhaps Hellboy. A tour de force of dark designs, The City of Lost Children isn’t a film for everyone but it might be just right for you.
10. Open Your Eyes (1997)
Audacious, intelligent, and admirably perplexing, Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes is a beautifully orchestrated psychological sci-fi thriller rarity.
Co-written with his regular collaborator Mateo Gil, Amenábar’s brand of reality-questioning speculative fiction, existential angst, and mental agility recalls vintage Philip K. Dick (especially his acclaimed 1969 mindfuck masterpiece novel Ubik). But don’t let the jigsaw puzzle predication dissuade you, Open Your Eyes is an ambitious smoke and mirrors game with a lot going for it––much more than Cameron Crowe’s tepid Vanilla Sky (2001) remake suggests.
Unable to remember a murder he committed, wealthy young César (Eduardo Noriega), facially disfigured from a failed suicidal car crash, is in psychiatric lockup, tormented by flashbacks and confusing memories of his old flame, Sofía (Penélope Cruz, stunning). Madness, obsession, and verisimilitude weigh heavy on César, and on the audience by proxy, in this solid cinematic shocker, with a twist ending so unnerving you’ll probably want to see it twice.
9. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Millennial angst merges with top drawer animation in Mamoru Oshii’s complex and critically acclaimed Ghost in the Shell. Reworked from Masamune Shirow’s popular manga series, welcome to the year 2029, where society is managed by a vast electronic network where human consciousness (the “ghost” of the title) is given shape via custom cybernetic suits (that’d be the “shell”).
Amidst the hi-tech hysteria and political chicanery––Ghost in the Shell is marred by much that is hard to follow, like Akira before it, at least for typical Western audiences––a strange, nuanced, robot-populated anime awaits.
The action scenes astonish, the gender role reversal of the main characters is refreshing, and the mind-shredding spectacle of it all leaves a big impression on even the most casual of anime fans. With the American live action remake from Rupert Sanders and starring Scarlett Johansson primed for a 2017 release, hopefully more people will revisit Oshii’s staggering showpiece. A cyberpunk classic, Ghost in the Shell lives up to the hype.