Nine Truly Underrated Sci-Fi Movies from the 1990s

City of Lost Children

The Lightgun Galaxy staff recently stumbled upon a GameSpot list of the most underrated sci-fi movies of the 1990s. While this is a pretty decent list of ’90s science-fiction flicks, we have some issues with the use of the word “underrated.” Most of the films on the GameSpot list were blockbusters, highly appreciated in their time.

Oh, and the featured image for that article was for The Matrix, which is misleading for two reasons:

  1. The Matrix isn’t even on the list.
  2. It’s really, really hard to argue that The Matrix is underrated.

With that said, we decided to make our own list in response, giving us a chance to signal boost nine movies from the 1990s that were actually underrated.

And no, The Fifth Element doesn’t count — while it’s a fine movie, it did super well at the box office. It’s really hard to make an argument that it was underrated. And fans of Bruce Willis are getting double-snubbed here, because we really, really wanted to put 12 Monkeys on this list (but it also doesn’t count).

We’re thinking more along the lines of box-office failures that should be viewed before they’re lost to time. So journey with us from the uncomfortably thought-provoking to the delightfully wacky; here are our actual picks for underrated sci-fi gems from the 1990s:

Strange Days (1995)

Strange Days

Strange Days has all the makings of an incredibly dated ’90s sci-fi film. Not only does it take place at the cusp of Y2K, but it has a plot that revolves around mini-discs. Despite all that, this action-packed neo-noir thriller feels surprisingly ahead of its time.

The critical reception for Strange Days was mixed at release, and it was a major box-office bomb. In fact, it tanked so hard that it temporarily derailed director Kathryn Bigelow’s career. Thankfully, the film’s been positively re-assessed in recent years. Some of the plot points are a bit messy, but the action scenes are killer, and the movie asks some really compelling questions. 

Open Your Eyes (1997)

Open Your Eyes

Many viewers are somewhat familiar with Open Your Eyes thanks to Vanilla Sky, an American remake starring Tom Cruise. But while the two films have the same premise — a successful man falls in love, only to have his life disrupted by a disfiguring accident — the original movie stands head and shoulders above the remake. It’s undeniably a sci-fi film, but it dips its toes into plenty of other genres too, from romantic drama to horror to thriller. 

Penelope Cruz, who plays the same character in both films, is incredible here, giving a performance that’s raw and vulnerable and uncomfortably real. Even though this is an introspective film, it’s never boring, and the twists and turns will have you at the edge of your seat from start to finish. 

Freaked (1993)

Freaked

There aren’t many great sci-fi comedy films, but Freaked is definitely one of them. Described as a “thinking man’s stupid comedy,” Freaked follows a former child star and his friends after they fall in the clutches of a wacky mad scientist (played by a delightful Randy Quaid). They soon become the latest subjects of his bizarre and horrifying human experiments. 

The jokes here are rapid-fire, and the special effects are absolutely incredible. If you love practical effects, you’ll find a bit of everything here, from rubber monster suits to animatronic creatures to claymation sequences. This is a fairly short film, clocking in at just 80 minutes, but it fires on all cylinders for its entire duration. 

August in the Water (1995)

August in the Water

Inspired by the works of Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard, August in the Water is a supernaturally-tinged sci-fi enigma. Part metaphysical thought experiment, part coming-of-age story, this film follows a young girl who develops a new awareness of the world after a near-death experience.

The ambiguous storytelling here won’t appeal to everyone, but if you don’t get hung up on unanswered questions, you’ll find this to be an incredibly evocative experience. It’s a hypnotic, dreamlike movie that will leave you thinking about our place in the cosmos long after the credits roll. 

Memories (1995)

Magnetic Rose

While this anthology film consists of three animated sci-fi stories, the star of the show is the first story, Magnetic Rose. Written by the late, great Satoshi Kon, it follows the crew of a deep space salvage freighter as they investigate a distress signal within a spaceship graveyard. It feels like a lost Ray Bradbury story, and, in our book, it’s a masterpiece. 

The other two stories aren’t quite on that level, but they’re still worth watching, especially the darkly funny Stink Bomb. While many anthology films have connections between stories, that’s not the case here. All three films stand completely on their own, and they could easily be split up across a few nights. 

Tammy and the T-Rex (1994)

Tammy and the T-Rex

Tammy and the T-Rex‘s origin story began with the discovery of an animatronic T-Rex. The dinosaur was an incredible movie prop, but it was set to be shipped to Texas. With no time to spare, the director threw together a script in a week and started filming. 

As you might expect, it’s a pretty bad movie, but in all the best ways. Not only is it laugh-out-loud funny, but performances from a very young Denise Richards and Paul Walker make this film incredibly charming. After a long day, why not kick back and relax with some ridiculous mad science?

The City of Lost Children (1995)

The City of Lost Children

Desperate to slow his aging process, a scientist kidnaps children so that he can steal their dreams. A carnival strongman (played by Ron Perlman) winds up entangled in these misadventures after he’s hired by a group of orphan children. It’s a classic premise that feels like something out of a fairy tale, but The City of Lost Children is shockingly dark and incredibly unique. 

While there’s a lot to love about this movie, the true star of the show is the spectacular steampunk visuals. The film looks like an old European comic book brought to life. It’s a retro futuristic nightmare that you won’t want to wake up from — at least not until the movie is finished.

The Iron Giant (1999)

The Iron Giant

While The Iron Giant has gotten some much-deserved praise in recent years, it was lambasted at the time of its release. It tanked at the box office, and the critical reception was fairly poor. I’m not sure why The Iron Giant didn’t click with audiences initially, because in our book, this Cold War-era sci-fi story is a classic. 

Even though this movie is appropriate for kids, there’s a darkness just below the surface that makes the movie incredibly compelling. The titular Giant is capable of terrible things, and the film never shies away from that. Even a machine that was built for violence can choose to be good, and that’s what makes the movie so inspiring.

The Black Bomber (1992)

The Black Bomber

Set in a futuristic version of Belgrade, The Black Bomber follows an anti-establishment DJ (the titular Black Bomber) who fights back against an authoritarian government with his pirate radio broadcasts. He suffers from “black moments,” a type of amnesia that makes him forget anything good he’s ever experienced. When Big Brother tracks down the source of the broadcasts, the Black Bomber and his crew have to take the fight off-air. 

This is an upbeat Yugoslavian film with an electrifying punk-rock energy. According to its director, Darko Bajić, it’s heavily inspired by Balkan politics of the ’80s and ’90s.

Although it’s incredibly obscure — even more than the other films on this list — it’s not too hard to find English-dubbed versions of this movie floating around on sites like YouTube.

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Josh Wirtanen
Admin
1 month ago

So sad that we had to leave Twelve Monkeys off this list! I love that movie!

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