8. Starship Troopers (1997)
Completing his deeply satisfying satirical sci-fi triple-header––which also includes 1987’s RoboCop and 1990’s Total Recall (#2 on this very list!)––dissident Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s gleefully over-the-top Starship Troopers lands with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In the far off future where everyone is pretty, military propaganda prevails, and the world wages war against an alien race of giant insect “Arachnids”.
Johnny Rico, played by a deliberately vacant Casper Van Dien, is a young soldier newly recruited to the Mobile Infantry where he soon discovers that he “kills bugs good” before a fusillade against American imperialism, consumer culture, war mongering, and Hollywood half-knowledge rains down like so much confetti.
Amongst the many guilty pleasures to be had in Starship Troopers are inane one-liners, gratuitous nudity, uninterrupted ultraviolence, and a gauche turn from Neil Patrick Harris, dressed in complete Gestapo regalia sending wave after wave of teen soldiers to their doom.
Never boring, always raunchy, and seriously self-aware, Starship Troopers is better than it ought to be. Don’t miss it.
7. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
An eccentric pastel-hued world fit for fairytales, Edward Scissorhands was a decidedly deviant and bold follow up to Tim Burton’s mammoth blockbuster from the year before, Batman (1989), and continued a great chain of successes for the once great filmmaker––say it with me now: “What happened, Tim?!”
Johnny Depp delivers a quiet, emotive and gentle performance in the titular role––he only says 169 words throughout the film––as a creation from the antiquated inventor (Vincent Price). Edward is human looking in every way, save his hands, which are, yup, you guessed it, scissors.
Winona Ryder is Kim Boggs, a popular high school cheerleader who can’t help but be taken in by the delicate, messy haired muse. The two share more than a few sweet moments together but, in Beauty and the Beast fashion, their love is doomed. Teen angst and alienation is rarely shown on screen with this much style, subtlety, and eloquence. Unforgettable.
6. Dark City (1998)
Alex Proyas’ noir-inflected sci-fi thriller is a fever dream for sci-fi fans. Diverse and multifaceted like Blade Runner, playing with pop philosophy like the Matrix or Solaris before it, Dark City takes existential angst and fractured imagination to the next level with alacrity and dark delight.
Set in an unnamed urban sprawl that frames an artful retro-future vibe, a vicious killer is on the loose. It could be John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), our likeable but sadly unreliable narrator, but his imaginings and memory isn’t making much sense. As he tries to clear his name his trail is dogged by strange apocryphal figures, like Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien), or mystery babe Anna (Jennifer Connelly), who used to be his wife, maybe, but now John’s not so sure.
Unfairly ignored during its wide release, Dark City has accrued a cult following ever since, and a director’s cut released on home video offers up more first-rate intrigue. An early champion of the film, Roger Ebert called the film “a great visionary achievement, so original and exciting, it stirred my imagination like Metropolis and 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
5. Delicatessen (1991)
The genius of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (this was their first collaboration) was never more obvious than in this disturbed and delirious post-apocalyptic comedic farce, Delicatessen.
Its pleasures are manifold, not least of all being the slapstick physicality of its multi-protagonist cast––standouts include Dominique Pinon and Karin Viard––inspired production design––Milijen Kljakovic deservedly won a million or so awards for his work on the film––accelerated editing, continuously roving camerawork––the many wide-angled lenses add to the ecstasy––and more, make this film unmissable on all counts.
The escalation of eye-rhyme gags and clever storytelling devices makes this world-gone-wrong adventure, set in a corrupt and collapsing housing complex of the post-nuclear war future, an ironic odyssey that doubles as a fairytale love story.
Delicatessen has it all, and the comic destruction of the last third of the film is some of the best mobocracy this side of the Marx Brothers. Indispensable viewing.
4. 12 Monkeys (1995)
True, many of 12 Monkeys’ temporal twists and surreal segues stem from Chris Marker’s magnificent La Jetée (1962), but the dystopian satire on agitated and artful display is all Terry Gilliam. Making a heady mix of genre staples, and manufacturing much cinematic spectacle from creative chaos, this intelligent sci-fi actioner makes the most out of tragicomic tableaus and arresting visuals.
Bruce Willis, so good when given the right director, is James Cole, a low-level illegal from 2035, a future that’s been destroyed by a strange disease, given a chance to time travel back to our present, to trace the origins of the plague, and perhaps prevent it. Premium points go out to Brad Pitt’s Oscar-nominated turn as Jeffrey Goines, an unhinged environmental terrorist, and Madeleine Stowe shines too, as Dr. Kathryn Railly, who genuinely wants to help James, but at a cost she may not be able to afford.
Gilliam’s future may be a bleak one, but the visceral thrills, strange excitement and heartstopping finish make 12 Monkeys an odd adventure you can count on. “Fuck the bozos!”
3. Terminator 2 (1991)
Egomaniacal creator James Cameron’s big-budget Arnie epic Terminator 2 is better than you remember it. Nostalgia lens aside (and c’mon, from the Guns N’ Roses riddled soundtrack is still pretty fist-pumping), Cameron is a driven director and experienced storyteller, here he delivers a strong, highly entertaining, and tactful cautionary tale.
In what’s probably Schwarzenegger’s most identifiable role––former California Governor aside––as an unemotional robot, void of tone, little more than a rippling mass of muscle, is a classic performance as the future-sent killbot. This time around Arnie is sent back in time to protect a young John Connor (Edward Furlong, remember him?), a lad fated to lead a future resistance against world-dominating machines.
Linda Hamilton is inspired, reprising her role as Sarah Connor, John’s protective mother, who herself is more Terminator than child-bearer. Robert Patrick is also unflinching as the baddie T-1000, whose liquid metal feats of severity and villainous venom, cutting-edge at the time, still pack a dangerous punch.
T2 holds up remarkably well and is a landmark movie, brainier than most action pics, it’s massive scale makes it a spectacle by any definition. A classic.
2. Total Recall (1990)
Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall is the first and finest loose adaptation of sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, and the resulting film is awesome. And by “awesome” I mean overrun with profanity and excessive violence, memorable one-liners (“Benny, screw you!”), gruesome sight gags (“See you at the party, Richter!”), and, suitably, a shit ton of razor-sharp satire.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the height of his popularity, is ultra-masculine hero Douglas Quaid, a plebeian construction worker on Earth in the year 2048, who has strange memories of Mars. Via an ill-advised session at Rekall—a conglomerate the happily provides memory implants for their customers—Quaid soon discovers previously suppressed memories suggesting a massive conspiracy that will lead to Mars.
Verhoeven’s visuals are astounding as are his alien landscapes and futuristic imaginings. The post-punk production design and showy special effects add to the bombastic sensory assault, as in the three-breasted mutant Martian prostitute who, pardon the terrible pun, is milked for all she’s worth (which is a lot!). Total Recall is crass, hyper, hilarious, and full of pep. If liking this OTT sci-fi orgy as much as I do is wrong, who needs to be right? “Get your ass to Mars!”
1. The Matrix (1999)
The last word in existential paranoia in science fiction, the Wachowski’s full throttle, Philip K Dick pastiche of cyber-action, Gnostic beliefs, and bullet-time excess doesn’t just question the meaning of life, but it’s Archon-addled existence as well.
The Wachowski’s breakout film, The Matrix, and, to a much lesser extent the subsequent sequels, display a cosmology where the known world is an information grid, fully cloaked in crazy paranoia, sanity-questioning conspiracy and frenzied excitement.
When computer hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves), learns via mysterious rebels––including Carrie-Anne Moss’ femme fatale redeemer Trinity and Laurence Fishburne’s Zen warrior wizard Morpheus––about the true nature of reality and his religious-like role in the war against the controllers (he’s “the One”, apparently), unparalleled excitement erupts.
It’s easy to forget, especially after the misguided Matrix sequels, that the late 90s had seen almost nothing of the ever-shifting realities, robust cyberpunk conventions, and pop philosophical uncertainty that this film presented. It made dark promises of a world to come in film we’d never dared to imagine.
Virtual reality speculations with such apocalyptic and elegiac overtones had never before been so richly realized, the martial artistry, wire-work, and slo-mo visuals really felt like the future. All told, The Matrix is still a marvel of high time imagination. “Whoa!” indeed.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.