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90s Blockbusters

Last Action Heroes: How 1990s Blockbusters Swapped Thugs for Thinkers

Notes from the Editor and a Spoiler Warning

This article was originally published way back in October, which in internet years is approximately a decade. We’ve given it a facelift so you can give it a second chance 🙂

As this article traverses the entire decade through some of its biggest (although not always best) sci-fi action blockbusters, we’ve put together a suitably heroic soundtrack for it. Hopefully, the bombastic score sets the right mood as you read on, but only you’ll know for sure so please let us know what you think in the comments below. Caution: This article contains plot points from Total Recall, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Universal Soldier, Alien 3, Demolition Man, Johnny Mnemonic, Independence Day, Men in Black, The Fifth Element, Starship Troopers, Alien Resurrection, Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Wild Wild West, and – phew – The Matrix, and it some cases reveals the ending.

Science fiction stories have always mirrored their own eras, their societal or cultural fears and anxieties, the potential of technological advancement. They’re a time capsule as much as they are a vision of the future, and few decades offer as rapid a change on screen as the 1990s. 

The aftermath of the power shifts in 1989 sparked waves of revolution across the globe, including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Towards the end of the 90s, the importance of the US military-industrial complex was overshadowed by the tech computer industry as it grew in power and scale. The landscape was changing, and the heroes changed with it. Anyone with a keyboard and internet connection could now change the world. There was no need for big muscles and biceps as the metaphysical took over – you could arm yourself with information while ordering a pizza.

That shift can clearly be seen in Hollywood’s blockbuster heroes. They transformed in appearance and their tech tapped into the way people had started to use the internet to challenge the status quo. The rebellion against the cold-hard capitalism of the Reagan/Bush administrations can be seen in the anti-establishment figures presented in the 1990s. Heroes were afforded the power to question authority and enact change through a combination of brute force and selfless acts. The need for a certain type of machismo dwindled and was satirised on numerous occasions, and the cyber-hero movie even got the green light from a major studio.

The internet offered a place where reality could literally be manipulated and identity was anonymous or fluid. The way we lived our lives was changing and sci-fi films explored not only the psychological impact of the fabric of reality coming apart but the way the internet could be integral to acts of rebellion against the status quo.

1990-1992 – The last action heroes

Arnold Schwarzenegger was undeniably the go-to sci-fi action star in the early 90s and his five-time Mr. Universe-winning frame was utilized by two major directors in very different ways at the start of the decade.

In the summer of 1990, Paul Verhoeven’s ultra-violent adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale was released as Total Recall. Arnie plays construction worker Quaid, whose belief in the structure of reality begins to dissolve when his memories suggest he has lived an entirely different life. His recurring nightmares place him on Mars as a secret agent and when he enters into a VR simulation that places him in that very scenario it leads him to question his whole existence.

Verhoeven has always been ahead of his time and Total Recall’s themes would dominate the Hollywood sci-fi action blockbuster in the latter part of the decade. In stark contrast to the one-note early 80s beefcakes he was famous for, Arnie’s bulging physique is filled with confusion and vulnerability. In reality, there was a shift in his role choices at this point due to his preparation to enter the political arena and his affiliation with Republican President, George Bush. A heart condition would dictate his workload and role choices later in the decade, but in J. Hoberman’s 1991 Sight & Sound feature Nietzsche Man, Arnie was described as “a man’s man, – or rather a man’s superman, or perhaps the simulation of man’s superman.”

The way Verhoeven’s movie is constructed by continually reconstructing Quaid’s perspective forces the viewer to re-evaluate what they’ve just seen on screen, as the filmmaker fits big ideas into the Hollywood blockbuster mould. A distorted reality is presented about a construction worker who sees beyond the news headlines, uncovers corruption, brings it all toppling down to define a new world order. It all feeds into the politics of the previous decade with Verhoeven using Arnie’s musclebound, law-abiding persona in an ironic anti-establishment fashion.

Another director who was mastering his craft in this era was James Cameron: the man who launched Arnie into the mainstream in 1984 with Terminator, and who used the sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) to advocate for world peace.  

The villain is now a hero (albeit still a robotic killing machine) who learns about humanity and is taught empathy from a young John Connor. It’s a film where everyone is searching for their humanity including an incredibly buff Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor.

Cameron envisioned a softer, kinder male sci-fi action hero and in juxtaposition a wilder, more aggressive female hero. Both evolve over the course of the film as they battle against a common enemy in the form of Skynet’s police-disguised T-1000. Released in the summer of 1991, following the end of the Gulf War, Cameron depicts a world on the brink of a dusty apocalypse.

Killing with kindness: Terminator 2: Judgement Day manages the impossible by imbuing the implacable android with a softer side. | James Cameron, 1992.

Universal Soldier (1992) seemed content to continue on where Terminator left-off with AI-controlled, cryogenically frozen Vietnam soldiers reanimated in the present day. Jean Claude Van Damme plays the hero who begins to suffer PTSD-induced flashbacks after a malfunction, teaming up with journalist Veronica (Ally Walker as a comedic side-kick) to defeat his sadistic government-sanctioned comrade (Dolph Lundgren).

Again, you can see the vulnerability trickling out from the beefcake outer-shell, with the film’s themes of trauma, national shame and the ravages of war told via the hero’s narrative. Yet still, the hero walks around buck-naked and cock-sure, showing off his powerful physique and quite literally flaunting his virility. To save the day he sleeps with the journalist and engages in an elongated kick-boxing fight. It’s pure sex and violence for the most part, that offers its hero the sweet denouement of a safe return home.

Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is a bona fide iconic hero born in the 1980s and resuscitated as a martyr in David Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992). Over the 90s Ripley appeared in two Alien films and each time she evolved and mutated to tie in with contemporary issues. This is the one where Ripley shaves her head, is impregnated by the alien and dies at the end. Pointedly, there hardly any guns, in clear juxtaposition to Cameron’s Aliens, but there’s still lots of blood and guts flying about.

In the year where Tom Hanks won the Oscar for his performance as a man who is diagnosed with HIV and fights for his rights as his body is ravaged by the AIDS virus in Philadelphia, the critics tied Ripley’s battle for survival to the disease. Renowned critic Philip Strick described this incarnation of Ripley as “a psychotic, at war with the poison inside her” in his S&S review. Fellow S&S critic Amy Taubin also acknowledged the AIDS crisis and abortion rights as integral to understanding the heroine’s eventual sacrifice, stating:

“By choosing to hurl herself over the brink, rather than bend to the will of the state, the hero guarantees her transformation from woman to myth.”

Amy Taubin

On reflection Ripley is reeling from grief from the death of her crew while also forming an alliance with a gay character, illustrating the film’s stance against homophobia. The conservative male anxieties about the nuclear family central to the Alien films from the previous decade are swapped to show Ripley’s POV, as she attempts to navigate dangerous territory inhabited by religious, celibate male prisoners convicted of rape and murder. It’s a startling depiction of how the female body is viewed and debated in society and the political arena.

In an interview published in Imagi-Movies Magazine, Fincher explained his desire to depart from the 1980s depiction of this character:

“The idea was not to make a whiz-bang, shoot ‘em up, but to deal with this character. Let’s put a 40-year-old woman in outer space, not an underwear-clad victim like in the first Alien.”

David Fincher

He viewed the Alien franchise as a reaction to the ‘yuppie ideal’ and capitalism, and he depicted Ripley as a progressive feminist hero for the times. At the heart of the character he explained is her martyrdom: “Sacrifice, the idea that sacrifice was a noble, capitalist alternative. We’ve come full circle and realized that selflessness is as important as selfishness in order to survive.”

That change was reflected in the political mood of the time. 1993 marked the switch to a Democratic government and the presidency of Bill Clinton which lasted into the new millennium. It also marked the end of Arnie’s seven-year unbroken reign as one of the top ten highest-grossing stars at the US box office.

At the heart of Alien 3, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley becomes more vulnerable but also more than just a woman, a theme that continues with the fourth film in the series. | David Fincher, 1992.

1993-1996 – Self-aware sunsets and signs of life

Ideals, tastes and politics were changing and Hollywood desperately rushed to keep up with it all. The media attention and debates that unfolded after the verdict from the Rodney King trial and the LA 92 protests highlighted racial discrimination and police brutality. At the same time, the major part that computer technology was having on everyday life – including Microsoft launching Internet Explorer – played into the way the hero adapted and who they teamed up with to save the day.

First up, there was some unfinished business to handle between three major stars of the era. Sylvester Stallone, Sandra Bullock and Wesley Snipes all appeared in Demolition Man (1993); a self-reflexive comedy that directly satirized the fetishization of the archetypal male heroes who played by their own rules, predominant in buddy cop and action movies.

To quote the film these men were now considered “brutish fossils.” Violence has been wiped out in the future in this sci-fi satire set in the fictional San-Angeles – clearly a stand-in for Hollywood – but when dangerous criminal Simon Phoenix (Snipes) is mysteriously reanimated from cryogenic prison it’s up to old-school cop John Spartan (Stallone) to take him down. Bullock plays peaceful law-enforcement officer, Lenina Huxley, who teams up with Spartan and places the old school hero on something of a pedestal with tongue-in-cheek humor – continually misquoting their one-liners to Spartan’s amusement.

It’s a movie that’s predominantly focused on commenting on the action hero in movies, while idly throwing in hot button topics. Hollywood was beginning to move on from the bulging beefcake sci-fi hero, and this group of expendables was certainly aware of changing tastes. So much so that even Arnie’s popularity and political aspirations are parodied in the film through the ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger Presidential Library.’

Next up, it was the turn of a svelte and suited Keanu Reeves in the (somewhat unsuccessful) dawning of the cyber-hero in Johnny Mnemonic (1995). Much was made of Reeves’ wooden performance at that time – he was even likened to a mannequin in Kim Newman’s S&S review – but to be fair he was playing a literal harddrive. Pioneering cyberpunk author William Gibson adapted this major studio release, which features a hero who displayed brains over brawn and teamed up with a codebreaking dolphin to save the day.

Both Demolition Man and Johnny Mnemonic seem fascinated with East Asian culture, philosophy and attire. It was early days but the connective power of the internet played a major role in how sci-fi cinema was being shaped. Global influences and innovative leaps in technology impacted how North American filmmakers envisioned the future and the type of heroes that would emerge.

In 1995, dial-up internet was only used by a few professions, but it would soon become a broadband phenomenon used in many households. The world was expanding and it was all at the layman’s fingertips to experience and uncover. This was also the year the Wachowskis started touting The Matrix (1999) screenplay; the influence of East Asian culture, such as anime, and further technological invention would also seep into their film, but more on that later.

In 1996 Will Smith became the first black action hero in a major blockbuster. Everyone is a goddammed hero in Independence Day, but Smith’s ambitious pilot, Captain Steven Hiller, fits the typical action hero archetype; fearlessly punching aliens in the face and delivering memorable one-liners such as “Now that’s what I call a close encounter!”

It’s interesting to see who he teams up with in a film that extols the virtue of coming together to overcome a common enemy. Enter Jeff Goldblum’s Jewish technology expert, David Levinson, who uploads a computer virus to the mothership to help save the day. You can see the evolution of the computer expert turning into something of a hero through Levinson’s shift from neurotic yet brave desk man to a sexy, cigar-chomping pilot. At the end of the film, he and Hillier emerge victoriously from their mission Top Gun style!

As the decade continued niche interests, comic books and the end of the world seemed to dictate the kind of heroes that would appear in the sci-fi studio blockbuster.

1997-1999 – New attitudes for a new world

Will Smith continued his reign as hero with another major blockbuster Men in Black (1997)based on Lowell Cunningham’s comic book. His natural charisma, comedic ability and music career made him a household name and a family-friendly hero who ensured bums on seats. First introduced as NYPD cop, James, in the film, his world view is changed as he’s granted a peek behind the curtain at a secret agency assigned to keep intergalactic peace and monitor aliens.

To get the job as the agent James must first pass a test. Surrounded by stocky, rule-abiding soldiers in full army attire, James in his casual clothes stands out like a sore thumb. Ultimately, it’s his capability to think outside of the box that lands him the job. He’s ushered in by K (Tommy Lee Jones), an old pro who is ready for retirement – you can view their switch as acknowledgement that it’s time to pass the baton on in terms of the hero.

Smith certainly is a physical departure from the Arnie type that dominated the box office in the early 90s, yet there are similarities in what the heroes in Total Recall and Men in Black are presented with in terms of how their perception of reality changes. They both battle power-hungry foes, enter secret agencies, protect aliens and have to shed their old lives and beliefs to succeed.

By the end of Men in Black Smith’s Agent K has to make the decision to work outside the system or give up his newfound knowledge. His eyes now open, he decides he can’t go back. The world was changing; mobile phones were becoming a major part of daily life, Google was just about to launch, and communication and the way information was shared would change forever. 

To understand who the true hero of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) is, you first have to look at the villain. Gary Oldman plays a merciless arms trader intent on world domination and destruction. Technology has evolved, but whether it’s used for good or bad is in the hands of those with money and power.

Enter Milla Jovovich’s naïve alien-out-of-water, Leeloo who is disgusted at the violence she witnesses in her quest to save humanity. Bruce Willis may roll around with guns and catch Leeloo when she falls, but he’s something of an unwitting sidekick. Leeloo means business and the fate of the world is ultimately in her hands. An ex-military man turned cab driver is taught a lesson about how love, not war can save the day. Speaking to Entertainment magazine on the film’s 20th Anniversary, Besson reflected on his decisions to shake up the sci-fi action flick, saying:

When I started this film, I knew I had a 50 per cent chance that after this I will not be in the movie business. You cannot write a sci-fi that is funny, first of all, made in France with Jean-Paul Gaultier and the hero is a woman.”

Luc Besson

If Demolition Man was playfully poking fun at the Hollywood hero then Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997) tore it apart from the inside and played with its innards for a while. Who or what we view as a hero is satirized in this adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel, that itself paints a picture of a fascist utopia and a population blind to its machinations.

It is left up to the audience whether to cheer or boo at the unfolding wars and destruction – much as it is in reality. In Interview Magazine, Verhoeven explained his approach, saying:

Starship Troopers is more to do with foreign politics. It’s about propaganda, and the function of propaganda versus reality, and how it spins reality.”

Paul Verhoeven

As seen in T2 and Alien 3 the female sci-fi hero took a different course over this decade. They embraced their power and used their physical prowess to kick the crap out of the system – even Leeloo in The Fifth Element takes out some guards by combat, but she never hurts an innocent bystander. In Alien Resurrection (1997) Ripley is revived as a clone whose bodily autonomy has been removed. Unbeknownst to her, her body is being harvested to make alien hybrids, and in the process, she has fused with the monster to become something new.

The issue of women’s reproduction rights presented in Alien 3 is given new meaning in the fourth film of the franchise. In 1993 the shooting of Dr. David Gun became the first known murder of an abortion doctor in the US, and as the decade continued further attacks on abortion clinics resulted in multiple murders. Women’s bodies were once again piling up dead and their autonomy up for debate. Ripley spends this entire film smashing up the patriarchy and literally hitting aggressive men in the balls. The Alien films have always been anti-corporation but this time, Ripley, in a screenplay written by Joss Whedon, bears all the same traits as his other feminist heroines including Buffy, as she ruthlessly takes the power back.

Y2K was fast approaching, and we were told that due to an error the millennium bug would bring computer systems crashing down and cause businesses and perhaps the entire capitalist model itself to topple. Sci-fi entertainment began filming the beginning of the end via two disaster movies where comets are set to collide with the Earth. Again, the idea of self-sacrifice and martyrdom makes an appearance. The male heroes who represent old-fashioned American values blow themselves up to save the day. In Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998) Bruce Willis’ oil rig boss turned astronaut becomes a better father and father figure as he self-sacrifices to save the world and his daughter’s fiance. In Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact (1998) an experienced, ageing astronaut played by Robert Duvall makes the call to end his own life in order to save the world, although it’s in the hands of a young science-whizz and a journalist (Elijah Wood and Téa Leoni) to sound the alarm.

In The Matrix, the Wachowskis crafted a science fiction icon for the new millennium: a disaffected computer hacker turned metaphysical messiah. | Lana and Lilly Wachowski, 1999.

Meteors aside, in the final year of the 1990s, Will Smith and Keanu Reeves were now cast as the heroes, representing a huge departure from the start of the decade. The role that would prove iconic took major real-life innovations in technology into account with prescient ideas and style to spare. The other…not so much.

Still, Smith was offered the role of Neo in the Wachowskis’ modern sci-fi-classic The Matrix (1999) and turned it down. He instead opted to partner up again with MIB director Barry Sonnenfeld for a steampunk adventure that involved him battling against a racist inventor who wishes to rewrite the outcome of the Civil War with a giant mechanical spider in Wild Wild West (1999). It’s no Django Unchained, but Smith as a gun-toting cowboy was the prime candidate for a revisionist Western. It’s obvious to see why he chose the role of a blockbuster action-adventure where a Black man battled a racist, but unfortunately, it just didn’t work with critics and it barely scraped a profit from box office audiences.

The role of Neo was also turned down by Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Sandra Bullock but eventually landed with Reeves who engaged with the philosophical ideas at the heart of the film. Lilly and Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix was a true event movie and became the fifth-highest grossing film of 1999. It fully engaged with the power of the internet and pushed the limits of the action movie with its ‘bullet time’ special effects.

No one could predict how the internet, file-sharing sites like Napster and early social media like and, arguably, Neopets, would change the world, but the Wachowskis knew the world wide web offered a new reality where the possibilities were endless. They played with the mistrust of the mainstream, metaphysical solipsism and offered a new type of hero; a disillusioned company man and underground computer hacker. In line with the female sci-fi hero’s journey over this decade Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) gets some kick-ass sequences but ultimately becomes the love interest to Neo.

The Wachowskis envisioned a capitalist dystopia where humans were literal cogs in the machine, doing nothing more than powering the system. The general population lived in a simulated, distorted world where the truth was hidden. It was up to an optimistic hacker to save the day. Through information uploaded directly into his brain, Neo taught himself new skills such as kung-fu, gaining the knowledge and abilities necessary to challenge the capitalist system through technology.

In a recent Netflix interview, Lilly Wachowski – who transitioned in 2016, although her sister Lana did so around a decade earlier – spoke about the trans allegory in the film, explaining that the Matrix “was all about the desire for transformation, but it was all coming from a closeted point of view.”

The progressive nonconformist ideas at the center of The Matrix may not always match up with the hero’s actions, but there is a clear shift away from what the moviegoing audience was presented with at the start of the decade. The unattainable physiques of the musclemen that dominated the genre were replaced by the average Joe who could slip through the system unnoticed. Rather than hit the reset button, the Wachowskis worked within the Hollywood blockbuster frame to imagine an enlightened kind of sci-fi action hero who could eventually break the mould and the genre ended the decade by taking a dazzling step forward.

Shoutouts: A huge thanks to Phil Hallam, Graham O’Mara, and Josh Slater-Williams, some of our Kickstarter backers who made The Companion possible!

Testimonial Author Image

Katherine McLaughlin is a freelance writer and critic for the likes of Sight & Sound, the BFI, Vice, Dazed, The List, SciFiNow and BBC Radio Scotland, and covers film festivals around the globe including Cannes, Berlin, TIFF and Venice.

Follow her on Twitter @Ms_K_McLaughlin

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