When Hollywood transitioned from the '80s to the '90s, technology was a huge participant when the rules were changed. Suddenly, horror wasn't as important as "looking good" in science fiction, and plots tended to be put aside for the sake of a better "look and feel." In budgets, changes were oriented towards special effects and finding at least a big name that could elevate a genre film into something more mainstream.

VHS was still a valid resource studios could look into when increasing sales, and perhaps it's a reason why some of the films on the following list were seen overseas. Regardless, they're far from being bad films. They're survivors of an era where special effects could be the main character and these didn't have the greatest budgets. As some of these show, sometimes it's not about the budget size, but how you actually use that size.

Related: 15 Obscure Sci-Fi Movies That Should Be Remade

Updated on August 4th, 2023 by Gaurav Krishnan: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.

20 The Rocketeer (1991)

The Rocketeer
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

This film is one of the earliest superhero films that actually matters to this day. The Rocketeer has everything you would expect from a Disney film, but it's also a great adaptation of a comic book that could be enjoyed by adults as well due to the more complex plot regarding Howard Hughes and the Nazis.

The story is about a stunt pilot who finds a jetpack and uses it to fly and fight crime. The special effects are especially good and blend well with the 1930s setting where the film takes place. This one's all about the cast, which includes Jennifer Connelly, Billy Campbell, Alan Arkin, Paul Sorvino, and Terry O'Quinn. It really doesn't get any better than this.

19 Freejack (1992)

Warner Bros.

1992's Freejack is an action film that segues into a bonkers time travel and memory implantation plot in a matter of seconds, but then it goes back to action in a futuristic setting where Mick Jagger delivers hilarious lines without losing the essence of the villain he portrays.

There's a star-studded cast and decent special effects, but the performances of the leads are too distracting. This has "studio intervention" written all over it because of its lack of consistency in the third act. Regardless, it's a fun film that still looks good to this day and shows us the great Esai Morales in an early role that's hard to forget.

18 Fire in the Sky (1993)

Fire in the Sky
Paramount Pictures

A film about aliens that was based on a true story? How wasn't Fire in the Sky more successful? It was supposedly the plot's fault that leaves unanswered questions. But it was a very faithful adaptation of the book about Travis Walton, a working-class man who claims to have been abducted by aliens.

The cast featured Robert Patrick, D.B. Sweeney, Craig Sheffer, and Peter Berg. The sequences portraying the abduction and what Walton experienced when he was up there are pure nightmare fuel and are among the best sci-fi sequences of the decade.

17 Soldier (1998)

Warner Bros.

The '90s got a bit repetitive with films like Universal Soldier, Demolition Man, and Total Recall which were all rather similar in concept. However, Paul W. S. Anderson’s Soldier starring Kurt Russell is perhaps the most underrated of the bunch.

It’s an all-out action sci-fi film that you can’t go wrong with, which is perhaps why Anderson decided to direct it after his box office bomb in Event Horizon. Kurt Russell, Jason Scott Lee, and Jason Isaacs put in slightly above-average performances that make the film a bit more interesting than it actually is in what culminates in a pervading cliché '90s sci-fi action flick.

16 Bicentennial Man (1999)

Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man (1999)
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Bicentennial Man is a massively underrated sci-fi flick that had its share of criticism and pitfalls. Chris Columbus’ direction may be questionable and in retrospect, the story lacks a bit of punch and is a bit of a drag, however, even the most ardent critics would agree that Robin Williams’ performance was poignant and impressive.

He plays a service robot who begins to develop human emotions. The film might be all over the place at times, but Williams drives the plot, and it’s arguably one of the actor’s best performances from his '90s catalog.

Related: Underrated Sci-Fi Movies of the '70s, Ranked

15 Body Snatchers (1993)

Body Snatchers 1993
Warner Bros.

Abel Ferrara's version of Body Snatchers is an impressive science fiction horror film that heavily capitalizes on the '90s stance of military entities. These are supposed to defend you, and you're supposed to feel safe whenever they're around. But not even a military base can safeguard a young woman who slowly begins noticing there might be something wrong with the people.

The special effects on this one may be the best on this list, and Meg Tilly's performance is probably the best in her career. Carol Malone's very cold speech led the trailers for the reimagining of the sci-fi horror classic that tried to stand out on it's own.

14 Strange Days (1995)

Strange Days
20th Century Fox

In Strange Days, memories are recorded. It’s a basic premise that only gets better with Kathryn Bigelow’s amalgamation of a futuristic cyberpunk crime thriller. While it's faded into obscurity. Strange Days definitely need to be reintroduced to modern audiences.

Like many other films on this list, it could be seen as a cautionary tale about our technology dependence. It still looks great to this day, and it’s an original film that’s a solid example of sci-fi merging well and naturally with other realms like action and neo-noir.

13 The City of Lost Children (1995)

The City Of Lost Children
Union Générale Cinématographique

Imagine a science fiction film made by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Now add to that a costume design by Jean-Paul Gaultier and a score by Angelo Badalamenti. Hard to imagine? Not anymore. The City of Lost Children is a sci-fi fantasy masterpiece that few people saw in 1995 and even fewer have seen it today.

It's a story about a scientist trying to steal children's dreams to prevent him from getting old only gets weirder every minute, but it's a great example of the visual style Caro and Jeunet approached with Delicatessen and definitely improved on. It also stars Ron Perlman, which makes it infinitely better.

12 Wedlock (1991)

Spectacor Films

Wedlock, the Lewis Teague-directed film is about a thief sent to a very peculiar prison:, one with no bars or cops. The prisoners have an explosive collar that links two of them, and if one tries to run away, the collars will explode.

Rutger Hauer plays the thief who meets his "partner" and decides to give the escape a try. We all remember seeing this one on VHS and applauding when Hauer's Frank Warren barely escaped prison, only to find another great threat in the villainous Joan Chen masterfully.

11 The Arrival (1996)

The Arrival
Orion Pictures

David Twohy, mostly known for being the mind behind Riddick's franchise, made The Arrival in 1996. It tells the story of an astronomer who finds evidence of intelligent alien life. When he decides to reveal everything, he becomes part of a dangerous conspiracy that will threaten his life.

It starred Charlie Sheen when he wasn't as famous, and featured an exciting trailer with intense action scenes that didn't really pay off in the film. Regardless, this one is actually a pretty good twist on the alien invasion theme that got incredibly popular due to shows like The X-Files.

Related: Underrated Sci-Fi Movies of the '70s, Ranked

10 Space Truckers (1996)

Goldcrest Films

Space Truckers might just be the Guardians of the Galaxy of the '90s, but it likely slipped under the radar for most casual movie fans Starring Dennis Hopper, Stephen Dorff, Debi Mazar, and Charles Dance, the film performed abysmally at the box office.

It grossed just $2 million against a budget of $25 million, making it a big-budget '90s sci-fi film that went awry. However, there are plenty of positives in the performances put in by the cast and in director Stuart Gordon’s take on a plot that was influenced by his boyhood love of sci-fi films and themes of space travel.

9 The Thirteenth Floor (1999)

Centropolis Entertainment
Columbia Pictures.

1999’s The Thirteenth Floor directed by Josef Rusnak is a neo-noir sci-fi classic that blurs between fantasy and reality. The plot follows the invention of a VR version of Los Angeles that simulates the city in the 1930s.

The story then shifts back and forth between the VR world and the real world as the VR’s inventor is murdered. The film was inventive and intriguing, but it went up against films like The Matrix and Fight Club; films in the same genre which also released in 1999, which is why it might not be as well-known. With that being said, it’s a worthwhile binge nonetheless.

8 Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

Johnny Mnemonic
Johnny Mnemonic Productions

Panned by critics and audiences, Johnny Mnemonic was released in 1995 when people hadn't had much contact with cyberpunk. It's still a genre that not many filmmakers approach because it's never simple to do compelling stories in such invasive settings.

Keanu Reeves stars in the film, which made studios change their mind about the film's direction. This caused a clash between the creative team behind the story and the studio financing the film. Sure, you feel that in the final result, but the story about a data trafficker (who transports data on his brain) being chased by a corporation is very interesting today. Give it a try. You won't regret it, and it's not nearly as bad as people said back in the day.

7 The Faculty (1998)

The Faculty
Miramax Films

From the soundtrack to the cast and the clothes, everything about The Faculty speaks of the '90s. It's actually Robert Rodriguez's most underrated film to date. The story is sort of a Body Snatchers for dudes in flannel shirts and weird hairdos from the times when Creed ruled the airwaves.

Students in a high school suspect their teachers have been taken over by aliens and will do anything to survive. Rodriguez makes sure he includes homage in his films, and this one has the greatest tribute to The Thing we've ever seen. You will laugh, but you will also cover your eyes at how these teenagers solve their biggest issues.

6 Mars Attacks! (1996)

Mars Attacks
Warner Bros.

The quintessential comedy/sci-fi film from the '90s or perhaps of all time, Mars Attacks! doesn’t fail to thrill audiences and conjure up laughs. With an ensemble cast and some interesting plot twists along with all the hilarity that ensues, Tim Burton hits this one out of the park.

The film’s box office numbers were quite average when the film hit theaters in 1996, and it was considered a failure at the time. However, in the years since, it has become a cult classic and one of the finest all-star spoof films ever made.

Related: 25 Most Mind-Blowing Sci-Fi Movies Ever Made, Ranked

5 eXistenZ (1999)

Alliance Atlantis

eXistenZ is a take on virtual reality taking over our realm and all sorts of things suffering the effect of a crossover designed by body horror master David Cronenberg. It's well-acted and looks great, but it sadly fell under the radar because people thought it was terribly weird.

A reporter and a high-tech video game programmer go on the run inside an experimental new game that makes them doubt thier very reality. Decades after its release, it works as a cautionary tale about our relationship with technology. This is an underrated sci-fi thriller that’s also one of Cronenberg’s most interesting films.

4 Gattaca (1997)

Ethan Hawke Gattaca
Sony Pictures Releasing

It’s uncanny how Gattaca isn’t more popular in sci-fi conversations. This one is a solid entry in genre circles because of the tone used for its story, its complex premise, and how it runs so well under thriller standards.

When Gattaca hit theaters, it was during conversations about the morals of cloning which is one of the themes of the movie. It touched on the shared paranoia when the film materialized one of our greatest fears about human clones. Also, the performances are especially gold on this one as well as the production design.

3 Sphere (1998)

Warner Bros.

Seriously underrated, the Barry Levinson horror sci-fi Sphere is one film that's not bad as the box office and critics said back in the day. Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Crichton, the film tells the story of a group of scientists who discover a spaceship at the bottom of the ocean.

What's different this time is that this spaceship has the capacity to manifest everything you're terrified of. It starred people that were quite famous in 1998, but not even that saved the Levinson flick from being accused of being unnecessarily complex and inconsistent.

2 Event Horizon (1997)

Event Horizon
Paramount Pictures

People take Event Horizon for granted. They accuse the film of being cheesy and lazily directed by the guy who took the Resident Evil franchise and made a few million bucks with it. But the reality is Paul W.S. Anderson's third film is a solid venture into the difficult horror sci-fi genre. He manages to make a pretty good film with a microbudget and a very decent cast.

We're still terrified of the idea he implied when astronauts landed on a seemingly abandoned space station that actually contained a portal to... Well, it's best if you tell us what you think was on the ship. It's one of the best sci-fi films of the '90s, but few will admit this.

1 Dark City (1998)

Dark City
New Line Cinema

We find it hard to believe that, to this day, people hesitate to watch Alex Proyas' Dark City. This one is a masterpiece that was sadly too confusing for audiences that the studios added an initial explanation for the home video release. It tells the story of a man who discovers a lot about the world he lives in when he gets amnesia and becomes a prime murder suspect.

The world Proyas created is much deeper than we saw in the film, which makes the film more puzzling and interesting to this day. Its production design, its resemblance to film noir classics, and the bleak conclusion make it a worthwhile revisit to the '90s when interesting sci-fi cinema was simply hard to find.