Science fiction movies might have the hardest job of all genres in selling themselves to audiences, most having to rely on visual effects and gadgetry to create authenticity. When it all comes together, they can be truly great films, but that often isn’t always the case. Here are 10 sci-fi movies from the 90s with great ideas that fell short.
Alien invasion movies are a dime a dozen these days so it takes something special to get seen (and not just with a big telescope). This thriller follows a radio astronomer (Charlie Sheen) who discovers that the strange space signal he intercepts not only proves that alien intelligence exists, there is a massive conspiracy that uncovers they are a lot closer to home than he imagined with dark plans for Earth. Despite a clever story and wicked ending, this one just misses the mark with a miscast Sheen and a few flat characters.
In the far, far future of 2009, the world has plunged into a dystopian mess of drug abuse and global pollution, yet the wealthy have learned how to live forever by using time machines to steal the bodies of young healthy people milliseconds before they die. Alex Furlong (Emilio Estevez) is a race car driver snatched just before a crash who goes on the run as a "freejack" from a nasty mercenary (Mick Jagger). A great idea is squandered by too much empty action and an awkward script. Jumpin' Jack Flashforward.
When time travel is invented, it is immediately used for criminal activity, necessitating the need for a police organization to patrol time. Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is one such cop who gets mixed up in a political plot that leads right to the White House. While the concept is brilliant, the execution is less smart and more Van Damme punchy. That's not all bad but this one still comes up short considering how strong the potential was for something really clever.
The fear that technology is going to one day cause us real trouble has long been fodder for moviemakers and with this one, that trouble comes in the form of Russell Crowe. He plays a collection of more than a hundred serial killer personalities created for virtual reality training but when his program is injected into a body with a nano-bot he begins a reign of terror that only a disgraced cop (Denzel Washington) can stop. Another great idea trapped in bland storytelling and a parade of action clichés. We are not entertained.
Deep Rising (1998)
A group of terrorists storm a luxury ocean liner thinking they are about to hit a big payday, but when they get on board they discover the passengers have disappeared, leaving behind only smears of blood. Seems a creature from the deep has risen and has gory plans for those unlucky to cross its path. With special makeup effects by The Thing's Rob Bottin, there's some fun to be had, but its standard monster-in-the-dark plot and seen-it-done-it story, keeps this lacking.
In this near-future story, electronic games have been replaced with organic "pods" that connect directly to a player's spine, requiring the installation of a bio-port. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a top game designer whose latest virtual reality game, named eXistenZ, might be something more than she realizes as she becomes hunted by assassins. Jude Law joins her adventure between the real and the not in a spectacularly odd and sometimes disturbing experience that has to be see to be believed. And even then you might not know what you just saw. Should have been a hit.
Ghost in the Machine (1993)
A serial killer working at a computer store uses address books stolen from customers to find victims. After he is killed in a car accident, a freak accident with his body involving an MRI and a lightning storm sends his soul into a computer where, connecting to a network, he finds a whole new way of luring and killing people. With spectacularly bad early CGI effects, this story is actually pretty cool but is let down by cheesy dialogue and poor direction. Worth it only for its dated charm. And Indiana Jones' girlfriend.
Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
In the near future, the world is connected by a vast virtual-reality internet so transferring highly-sensitive information is done by people, carrying the data in their brains. Johnny (Keanu Reeves) is one such courier, and when he needs money, takes a risk by overloading his storage capacity for a job that could pay big, but now he's got a limited time to deliver or he'll die from the effects. Worse, the Yakuza are after him. A solid action movie, it is ultimately too silly to matter. He is not the One (yet).
Tank Girl (1995)
Based on a comic book series, this wildly over-the-top adaptation sees a comet strike Earth and cause a 11-year draught leaving one company in control of the water except for one well in Australia, defended by a commune of colorful characters, including Rebecca Buck aka, "Tank Girl" (Lori Petty). While stylish and full of good humor, the zaniness wears thin and eventually the gags and flat one-liners sputter. Tanks anyway.
Strange Days (1995)
By far the most controversial on this list, Strange Days, about a time when memories can be recorded and the murder of a prostitute two days before the new millennium has a former cop (Ralph Fiennes) running in circles, divided critics, and while director Kathryn Bigelow keeps the energy high and the performances (mostly) on target, there is a familiarity to the story that keeps this just under greatness. A good-looking party but one you'll forget once it's over.