There were dead bodies, stolen goods, knotty plots, amoral protagonists, and irredeemable villains. And no—we’re not talking about the film noir era of the 1940s and ’50s. From late 1989 to early 2001, noir made a stunning return to Hollywood, splitting off into different subgenres and producing some of the most compelling films of the era—from The Usual Suspects to L.A. Confidential, from Devil in a Blue Dress to Basic Instinct. Join The Ringer as we revisit the surprising reemergence, unexpected fracturing, and profound impact of the neo-noir movement in the ’90s.
In the late ’80s, screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson began to notice a series of newspaper stories about the effects of global warming. Even back then, the predictions were dire: sea levels would rise; forests would burn; cities would flood. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is scary,’” Thompson recalls. “It was going to be a total freaking disaster if people didn’t do something.”
A worldwide ecological collapse seemed like the stuff of a sci-fi movie—which happened to be what Thompson was writing at that time. His script mixed gnarly action with hard-boiled film noir, focusing on a jaded Los Angeles detective on the trail of a vicious monster. But the more Thompson read about—and fretted about—the predicted meltdown, the more he wanted to address it in his script. So he relocated the story to circa-2008 London, where pollution has darkened the skies and nonstop rain has submerged the streets.
Thompson’s film, the low-budget Rutger Hauer vehicle Split Second, was finally released in 1992. Not all of his eco-fears made it to the big screen, but the sight of a manic Hauer sploshing his way through a water-logged, casually apocalyptic metropolis feels all too familiar today. “If you had that message set in modern day, [a lot of studios] would say, ‘It’s such a downer,’ and I didn’t want to go there,” notes Thompson, who’d later work on such hits as The Fast and the Furious and Hollow Man. “But because it was set in the future, it was an easier way to get the message in.”
As it turned out, Split Second was prophetic in more ways than one. By combining high-tech ideas within high-anxiety settings, the movie became a prime example of a film genre that would grow more prevalent, and more dire, as the ’90s went on: the sci-fi neo-noir.
Drawing from the twisty crime stories of the ’40s and ’50s—with their desperate outcasts and murky environs—as well as classic, futuristic mysteries like Alphaville and Soylent Green, the ’90s sci-fi noirs were smartly designed yet downbeat tales that traded wide-eyed, Reagan-era optimism for the new worries of the digital age. Sometimes called “tech-noirs,” they included everything from video-store oddities like Split Second to big-studio efforts like Dark City to even the micro-budgeted indie drama New Rose Hotel, in which a kidnapper played by Willem Dafoe tries to outwit murderous software corporations.
Not all of these movies were strictly defined film noirs; in fact, many of their creators weren’t even working with noir in mind. But knowingly or not, a handful of films fell into this flexible, sneaky little genre by co-opting some of noir’s mid-century stylistic touches—tall shadows, inky alleyways, razor-sharp fedoras—while replicating its morally iffy moods. “There was always a connection between noir and sci-fi,” notes Josef Rusnak, the director of 1999’s The Thirteenth Floor. “Noir is about a world which follows rules the protagonist doesn’t really understand. ... This is a world that’s out of balance, out of whack.”
In the sci-fi noirs of the ’90s, everything feels out of whack: society, technology, even reality. And viewers, who were still wrapping their heads around terms like “virtual reality” and “Y2K,” could relate. In a decade powered by CGI-assisted blockbusters like Jurassic Park or Men in Black, audiences made room for a series of intense, innovative sci-fi noirs that rarely leaned on flashy effects or feel-good endings. Strange Days was a murder mystery about a fast-talking scuzzball (Ralph Fiennes) who deals in virtual memories; the genre-splicing Gattaca placed a whodunit plot within the confines of a DNA-dictated brave new world. Even sci-foir’s most relatively mainstream entry—the Oscar-nominated, star-powered, box-office-topping 12 Monkeys—threw viewers for a loop. It begins as a ticking-clock thriller about a deadly plague and winds up a moving, Hitchcock-indebted drama about a time-jumping prisoner (Bruce Willis) and the psychiatrist (Madeleine Stowe) who tries to help him. “I thought of it as a love story,” says 12 Monkeys cowriter Janet Peoples. “One in which these people were doomed—but maybe they were going to get together again in the future.”
Of course, the quiet hopefulness of 12 Monkeys has recently been overshadowed thanks to the film’s eerily familiar depiction of a global pandemic. But therein lies a point about the genre as a whole: Like so many noir-indebted sci-fi films of the era, it now plays like an unheeded cautionary tale. For while the ’90s sci-fi noirs rarely predicted how technology would evolve—we’re still waiting for those nifty Johnny Mnemonic brain-ports—these movies excelled at mapping our 21st-century fears and foes: deadly plagues, mind-fucking digital devices, even treacherous tech companies. As rampant fires and seemingly never-ending hurricanes plague the globe 30 years after the release of Split Second, the film’s vision of a soggy future almost feels quaint. Little did anyone realize how bad things would get.
That may be why the ’90s sci-fi noirs—nearly all of which have earned dedicated cult followings—feel all the more powerful now. Though set in the future and made in the past, they look a lot like our often futile-feeling present. For audiences in 2021, the scariest moment in 12 Monkeys isn’t when a madman releases a killer virus into the air. It’s when Willis informs a team of ’90s scientists that it’s too late to put it back in the bottle. “This already happened,” he tells them matter-of-factly. “I can’t save you. Nobody can.”
The ’90s sci-fi noir boom was, in some ways, a rebuke to the mostly sunny Hollywood sci-fi of the ’80s. For every dark-hearted They Live or RoboCop, that era saw countless family-friendly tales in which new technologies—some man-made, some alien—pushed humanity toward a brighter tomorrow while often erasing the errors of yesterday: Back to the Future, Cocoon, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Explorers, E.T. (and, uh, Mac and Me). By the decade’s end, Bill and Ted had been on their excellent adventure; Johnny Five had been revived; and many, many kids had been shrunk. Even James Cameron—whose grim 1984 smash The Terminator helped introduce the term “tech-noir” to millions of viewers—finished off the decade with a moderately upbeat sci-fi tale (albeit one about the potential end of civilization).
But as the ’90s began, the faith that so many Americans had once placed in technology began to waver, and sometimes even curdle. The 1986 explosion of the Challenger was a heart-stopping, psyche-scrambling reality check on the promises of the space age, while home computers had become increasingly intrusive on everyday life. A sense of distrust was creeping in, one chronicled across years’ worth of Time covers: In the ’80s, the magazine ran a future’s-so-bright story heralding “the magic inside the machine[s]”; a decade later, Time was bellowing all-caps warnings about “CYBER WAR” and “CYBERPORN.” As the digital-era mood darkened, the big-screen alien sidekicks and kindly time-traveling doctors of the previous decade felt passé. Instead, many sci-fi fans and filmmakers began taking their inspiration from a movie that had mostly been ignored in the ’80s: Blade Runner.
When Ridley Scott’s future-noir was rereleased in theaters in the fall of 1992, it opened on nearly 150 screens—an event-movie triumph for a film that had initially proved too alienating to audiences. The story of a brooding detective (Harrison Ford) who hunts stray androids, or “replicants,” in a neon-lit, rain-pummeled L.A., Blade Runner had flopped upon release in 1982—the same year E.T. and Star Trek II ruled theaters. But home video and cable TV viewings, as well as a slew of sci-fi-dedicated magazines and zines, had kept Blade Runner alive, as had its central unanswered question: Was Ford’s character a man, or a machine? It was the sort of existential quandary that sci-fi fans and filmmakers love to kick around (especially if it’s in a movie with really cool flying cars). And Blade Runner was so ambitious, and so ambiguous, that its devotees could rewatch it endlessly, each time seeing unbelievable things.
“Blade Runner has to do with, ‘What is a human being?’ But you don’t have to get caught up in the specifics. You talk about the general idea of what makes you a human,” says David Peoples, who cowrote both Blade Runner and 12 Monkeys. “Science fiction liberates you from the daily facts, and allows you to talk about something in an abstract way.”
Bits of Blade Runner—whether it’s the film’s cyberpunk style, or its steely worldview—are scattered among the ’90s sci-fi noirs. You can see it in the overcast, overlit urban landscape of 1995’s Ghost in the Shell; in the rigidly imposed class divisions of Gattaca; even in the casting of Blade Runner bad guy Rutger Hauer in Split Second. But Blade Runner is most deeply felt in 1998’s Dark City and 1999’s The Thirteenth Floor, a pair of glumly philosophical sci-fi tales in which our (seemingly) free-willing heroes wind up questioning not just their humanity, but their own reality.
In the sleek, bleak Dark City—which was directed by The Crow’s Alex Proyas and famously championed by Roger Ebert—a confused mystery man named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up to learn he’s wanted for a series of murders. After he’s pursued through a shadowy metropolis, one that could have come straight from a 1940s noir, Murdoch learns that his memories and identity have all been fabricated by malevolent aliens, and that he’s actually adrift in outer space. (That’s a very concise summary of a very complicated movie; for more on Dark City, head to the web, where it’s been the subject of feverish obsession for more than two decades.)
Lem Dobbs, who cowrote the Dark City script with Proyas and David S. Goyer, says that Dark City was never intended to function as a strict film noir. (He even changed the character’s original name, Walker, because he worried it would remind viewers of Lee Marvin’s character from the 1967 crime classic Point Blank.) “You might say, in a way, Dark City is actually anti-noir, because the whole thing turns out to be an elaborate joke,” Dobbs says. “You might think you’re in a noir world, but then the rug is pulled out from under you.”
Still, the movie’s noir roots are undeniable: There’s the amnesiac hero trying to piece his life back together; the labyrinth-like city; the post–World War II fashion; even the title itself, which recalls a 1950 Charlton Heston thriller of the same name.
The film noir influence is equally apparent in The Thirteenth Floor, which was released a little more than a year after Dark City and shares some of its narrative dark matter. Set in 1999, it follows a young tech whiz named Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) who’s accused of murdering his mentor, a virtual-reality expert who’s built a perfect re-creation of 1937 Los Angeles. Unsure of his innocence, Hall travels back and forth between the (imagined) past and the (seemingly real) present—before realizing he himself is living within a constructed VR landscape.
The Thirteenth Floor may have arrived in the late ’90s, but its origins went back decades. Loosely based on the 1964 novel Simulacron-3—itself the basis for the excellent ’70s German TV series World on a Wire—the movie was a long-gestating labor of love for Independence Day director-producer Roland Emmerich. “He was being bombarded by the studios with stupid screenplays about virtual reality,” says Thirteenth Floor’s Rusnak. “And they were always trying to plug a virtual world into outer space, or onto another planet.”
Working together over several years, and on multiple drafts, Emmerich and Rusnak crafted a virtual-reality story that was set on Earth—and rooted in film noir. The decision was partly driven by financial concerns: Emmerich knew it would be cheaper to keep the story in the real world, and that 1930s L.A. would be easy to duplicate on-screen. But the noir influence was also due to Rusnak’s love of ’70s detective tales like The Long Goodbye and Chinatown. “They had an easiness and a playfulness,” he says. “But also the melancholy of a hero who can’t win.”
That sense of defeat hangs over many of the sci-fi noirs. The Thirteenth Floor finds Douglas Hall waking up in what appears to be 2024 … but which might be just another simulation. Dark City ends with Murdoch escaping his alien captors, and fleeing to a beachside paradise … albeit one he knows doesn’t actually exist. And David Cronenberg’s grody 1999 noir eXistenZ finds Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh playing lovers who escape a deadly video game … only to (maybe?) level up to an even deadlier game. In the ’90s sci-fi noirs, there are few satisfying conclusions. Just more worlds within worlds—some alien, some analog, and each more head-spinning than the last.
If science-fiction movies became more intense in the ’90s—well, so did science itself. The decade saw cautionary headlines about not just environmental decline, but also the millennium bug, Ebola outbreaks, run-amok digital surveillance, and, of course, Dolly the Sheep.
There were plenty of potential new dangers for filmmakers to mine—and sometimes, they found them simply by stepping outside their front door. In the ’90s, Janet and David Peoples were approached to write a remake of Chris Marker’s landmark 1962 film La Jetée, about a time traveler making his way through the fallout—both physical and emotional—of a nuclear war. But the idea of an atomic holocaust didn’t interest them. “Cameron had done it better than anybody with [The Terminator and Terminator 2],” says David Peoples. “We said, ‘We’d just be fucking around, trying to imitate James Cameron, and we’re not interested.’”
But both writers had a long-running interest in medicine and diseases. And their home in Berkeley, California, happened to be right around the corner from a virus lab. “They’d had animal rights people protesting, and some had even tried to break in,” says Janet Peoples. “So that was in our head: What if these idiots had actually gotten in there and released the animals, and they were infected with something? I mean, we’d all really be in trouble.”
It was a starting point for what would become their script for the Oscar-nominated 12 Monkeys, which followed Willis’s confused prisoner as he shuttles between 2035 and the ’90s, searching for the cure for a future virus. During his travels, he meets a mayhemic rich-kid animal-liberator, played by Brad Pitt, whose self-anointed Army of the 12 Monkeys might be responsible for spreading the infection worldwide. (Pitt’s cockeyed performance earned him his first Oscar nomination, as well as a Golden Globe award, resulting in one of the most famous diarrhea-medicine shout-outs in live-TV history.)
Directed by Terry Gilliam and released wide in the winter of 1996, the grim but thoughtful 12 Monkeys was a surprise success, earning nearly $60 million in the U.S. and later inspiring a TV series. But it wasn’t until the coronavirus struck that 12 Monkeys underwent a major reappraisal, with many noting the parallels between the film’s imagined scenario and our very urgent reality: When Willis wanders through a desolate, decrepit cityscape in 2035, it looks a lot like the lonely, frozen-in-time metropolises that dotted the globe at various points of 2020. The world of 12 Monkeys, once so far off, suddenly felt familiar—and not in a comforting way.
That same unsettling timelessness runs through both Strange Days and Gattaca, two other big-studio sci-fi noirs that arrived around the same time as 12 Monkeys. Based on an idea by Cameron, and directed by future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow, Strange Days takes place in a tension-riddled Los Angeles during the final days before Y2K. Ralph Fiennes plays Lenny Nero, a hustler who deals in other people’s illicit memories, which people can “jack into” via a skull-hugging, alien-like device. When Lenny comes across first-person footage of a beloved rapper’s execution, he’s pulled into a conspiracy that eventually engulfs Faith (Juliette Lewis), his longtime confidant, and threatens to upend the city.
“I always thought of it as a film-noir thriller that takes place on the eve of the millennium, the turn of the century, and perhaps the end of the world,” Bigelow said when Strange Days was released in 1995. Watched today, Strange Days feels less like a document of society at the millennium’s twilight, and more like a sneak preview of 21st century ills: There’s digital addiction; caught-on-tape police abuse; and unseemly voyeurism. Strange Days can be as jittery and squirm-inducing as Lenny himself, which may explain why the movie disappeared from sight shortly after release. Made for a reported $42 million, Strange Days earned $3.6 million in its first weekend—enough for The New York Times to declare it “a major failure.”
Nowadays, Bigelow’s film is considered an essential entry in the ’90s science-fiction canon, which is striking, given that the movie has little in the way of traditional sci-fi imagery: no ahead-of-their-time vehicles, no laser-assisted weaponry. Instead, the movie’s budget went toward bravura action sequences shot around Los Angeles (including a dramatic New Year’s Eve outdoor-rave scene that required the services of Deee-Lite, Aphex Twin, and nearly 10,000 extras—and that cost a reported $750,000). The combination of still-standing locations and still-simmering tensions gives Strange Days a jacked-into-the-present feel, as though it were made five minutes ago, not a quarter-century ago.
The less costly Gattaca, released in 1997, also has an uncanny, this-could-be-us sensibility—though its thrills are more of the slow-burning variety. Set in an unnamed year, it depicts an efficient yet brutalist society in which children can be preprogrammed according to their genetic codes, thus creating near-perfect humans. Those who are unlucky enough to have a flaw are deemed outsiders, like Vincent (Ethan Hawke), a janitor whose heart condition will kill him by the time he’s 30. With the help of a troubled ex-athlete (Jude Law), Vincent joins “proper” society, falls for a coworker (Uma Thurman), and becomes a prime murder suspect.
Gattaca marked the directing debut of Andrew Niccol, who’d recently written one of the decades’ hottest, most clairvoyant scripts: The Truman Show. Niccol had been keeping up with developments in genetic engineering, which had become front-page concerns in the ’90s. He worried that corporations would turn their employees’ DNA profiles against them. “The technology,” Niccol noted at the time, “is way ahead of the ethics.”
There are daunting moral questions at play in Gattaca, but they’re mostly (and wisely) smuggled in, having been disguised by the film’s pure-noir trappings. Gattaca’s classic cars and natty clothes root it firmly in the ’40s and ’50s noir tradition, as does the skeptical middle-aged detective (Alan Arkin) trying to put together the murder case. And the movie’s end is a classic noir-style bummer: Vincent dodges a murder rap and gets his chance to travel to space … knowing he’s still carrying a failing ticker.
Like the similarly doomed sorta-heroes of 12 Monkeys or Dark City, Vincent knows there’s no way of putting off the inevitable—that he can run only so far, and for so long. His final Gattaca lines include a send-off that may as well be a sci-fi-noir manifesto: “For someone who was never meant for this world,” he says, “I’m having a hard time leaving it.”
The ’90s sci-fi-noir movement ended quietly, felled in part by the bullet-time revelation that was The Matrix. When that film opened on Easter weekend in 1999, it forever altered future-thinking moviemaking. High-wire special effects—which had been used to augment movies like Strange Days, not support them—would now be all but demanded by audiences. It was a shift confirmed not long after the release of The Matrix, when The Phantom Menace temporarily became the most successful sci-fi film of all time. Moviegoers, it seemed, now wanted big-screen sci-fi that offered escapism, not cynicism. And while the years ahead would see a few ambitious tech-noir films—including Minority Report and (Code 46)—the early 2000s found big-screen sci-fi returning to familiar territories and well-calculated formulas: time-travel tales, disaster flicks, space-battle yarns.
Then again, the dread and disdain for technology that helped fuel the sci-fi-noir boom was, in some ways, a distinctly ’90s phenomenon. The era arrived with a nerve-racking expiration date: just past midnight on December 31, 1999, at which point our computers might turn against us. When the deadline arrived without any PC-aided revolution, it felt like a reboot. Suddenly, a decade’s worth of collective digital anxiety faded away.
As the 21st century began, the skepticism that had once greeted new technologies shifted toward optimism—perhaps even evangelism. Computers were changing modern life at a rapid clip. The internet was in our pockets. And new tech companies were being hatched seemingly every second, with big plans to change our lives for good. What could possibly go wrong?
Brian Raftery is the author of Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. His work has appeared in Wired, New York, and GQ.