90s Blockbusters: The Good, The Bad, And The Forgotten

Samantha Henman

There’s something special about a 90s blockbuster. The 80s, were of course, a golden age of blockbusters—from the Star Wars sequels, Indiana Jones franchise, the first Batman, and of course, often-imitated never-duplicated hits like E.T. and Ghostbusters (just to name a few). Then, the post-2000 blockbusters were marked by unapologetic, crass commercialism that often pandered to its audience—we’re looking at you, MCU.

While this tendency was certainly present in the 90s—one need only to look toward the gratuitous commercial tie-ins—it also seemed like a more innocent and also experimental time. Studios were throwing things at the wall to see what stuck. Two movies about giant volcanoes in one year? Sure, we’ll be the audience for this A/B test.

What appeals about the 90s blockbuster is what total packages they were. They had big-name directors, a mix of A-list and then-unknown stars, and soundtracks jam-packed with hits from multiple genres by hugely popular artists. These weren’t just action films—there was also mystery, romance, comic relief, and occasionally, aliens, ghosts, and vampires, just like their 80s predecessors. They were genuine, scrappy, sometimes utterly bizarre, and featured the odd misstep, but they were always entertaining.

The Good

In no particular order: Independence Day; Face/Off; The Matrix; Speed; Jurassic Park; Titanic; Blade; Terminator 2: Judgment Day; Mission: Impossible; Twister.

Obviously, there are some movies missing here—but keeping the idea of a blockbuster toward something very commercial and action-centric, we have to forego 90s dramas like Forrest Gump, animated fare like Toy Story, and more serious examples like Saving Private Ryan. Sorry, Tom Hanks!

Many 90s blockbusters come from one-sentence ideas that sound ridiculous on paper—dinosaur theme park gone wrong, FBI agent and a criminal literally switch faces, and the bus that couldn’t slow down, just to name a few. But somehow, they make it work. Each has, to a varying degree, bizarre and over-the-top elements that threaten to overtake the film. But, none of them ever quite reach that degree. Or, in the case of Face/Off, does hit those heights of excess but still manages to be entertaining.  

All Around Hits

Some of these great blockbusters spawned trends or franchises, for better (Mission: Impossible) or for worse (Jurassic Park, The Matrix). Many say that we wouldn’t have the MCU without Blade. Whether or not the sequels were good or bad—or just a good, standalone sequel (is Terminator 2 the The Godfather II of action movies? Short answer: yes)—it’s undeniable that many of the films on this list remain highly influential to this day. Many film studios have spent years trying to recapture the magic that made these films enduring hits.

Of course, any claim of significance takes a backseat to the fact that these films are endlessly entertaining. They’re rife for rewatches, full of humor and one-liners that have stood the test of time, and have distinctly 90s aesthetics—are the costumes of Will Smith in Independence Day and Helen Hunt in Twister strikingly similar? You bet. There was something for everyone: Natural disasters, spies, car chases, and sci-fi elements.

One other thing that was impressively consistent? Something the Razzies call “Reckless Disregard for Human Life and Public Property.” There’s something to be said about the cinematic reaction to the excess of the 80s and 90s being such gratuitous destruction—it speaks to a certain sense of nihilism, but that’s a whole other essay.

The Bad

In no particular order: Starship Troopers; Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace; Godzilla; Spawn; Lost in Space; Batman & Robin; The Avengers; Armageddon; Wild Wild West; Waterworld.

Many of these films tried to capitalize off the popularity of similar movies, or were entries within a franchise, but they completely missed the mark. How disappointing it must have been for Star Wars fans who waited over a decade, only to be met with Jar-Jar Binks and the controversial midi-chlorians. Then, after the quality Batman Returns and the commercial-yet-enjoyable Batman Forever, there was Batman & Robin, which ended the entire franchise in one fell swoop.

There was also the slew of revivals that may have banked on the tendency toward boomer nostalgia. Lost in Space and The Avengers are prime examples, but sadly neither could justify their astronomical budgets. One crime that many on this list have in common is the misuse of their stars: The seemingly bulletproof Will Smith fell victim to a stinker with Wild Wild West after the twin triumphs of Independence Day and Men in Black.

Of Armageddon, which committed the crime of taking itself too seriously, Roger Ebert famously said, “The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense, and the human desire to be entertained.” This criticism could easily be extended to any on the “bad” list. What they all have in common is that they failed to strike the balance of elements that the films on the “good” list did so effortlessly.

The Forgotten

In no particular order: The Mummy; True Lies; Die Hard With a Vengeance; Air Force One; Con Air.

While these films might not be “forgotten” in the sense that they live forever on cable TV, they’re definitely really good movies that tick all the right boxes, but for some reason just haven’t had the same cultural saturation as some on the “good” list. Perhaps if Netflix or Amazon Prime gave them a push to the front page, there’d be a renewed appreciation for these gems. Sure, they’re not always entirely even—while Con Air drew the ire of star John Cusack and co-producer Simpson, who can deny the power and beauty of Nicolas Cage’s hairdo? But still, they deliver on one blockbuster promise: They’re undeniably entertaining.

90s Blockbusters EditorialThe Mummy, Universal Studios

The Best?

Looking back now, it’s easy to feel a strong sense of nostalgia about the blockbusters of the 90s. Saying that one is the “best” would betray that special connection that was formed either through endless replay on cable on a Sunday afternoon or with the worn-out VHS tape that was lovingly pushed into the VCR at sleepovers. Everyone has their own opinion of which one is best, and that’s how it should be—but the best 90s blockbuster is Twister. There, I said it.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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