With the template for the summer blockbuster firmly established throughout the ‘80s, the final decade of the 20th century upped the stakes with bigger effects and more ambitious stories. Familiar characters like Batman and James Bond returned to the screen, classic TV series were overhauled into modern action thrillers, and Disney’s dramatic revitalization flourished with multiple modern classics.
During warm summer days, it was the perfect time for viewers of all ages to escape to air conditioned movie theaters to discover their new favorite films, including several sleeper hits that seemed to come out of nowhere, and several career-defining achievements from filmmakers like Steven Spielberg.
Here's a look at 20 of the big summer blockbusters that truly made the '90s a decade to remember.
A major surprise hit that ran in many theaters for over a year (and well past its release on home video), this supernatural romance stars Patrick Swayze as a murdered banker whose ghost grapples with solving his death, protecting his wife (Demi Moore), and coping with his new existence with the aid of a psychic played by a scene-stealing Whoopi Goldberg. The jukebox favorite "Unchained Melody" became one of the decade's signature songs thanks to Ghost, which received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and won for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Goldberg.
MORE: Essential Patrick Swayze Movies to Watch
Total Recall (1990)
Philip K. Dick’s cerebral short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" transformed into one of the first big sci-fi spectacles of the decade courtesy of director Paul Verhoeven, returning to the genre after 1987's RoboCop. Arnold Schwarzenegger gets to tackle numerous facets of his personality here as construction worker Dennis Quaid, who visits a virtual vacation facility for an espionage getaway trip to Mars and gets way more than he expected when his request becomes all too real. Sharon Stone's ferocious turn as Quaid's dubious wife was a turning point in her career and led to her star-making breakthrough in Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992).
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
After proving his big studio mettle with Aliens (1986) and the daunting production of The Abyss (1989), James Cameron went bigger than he ever had before in this amped-up sequel to his breakthrough cult hit, The Terminator (1984). Here, Schwarzenegger's T-800 Terminator has a very different mission; he's sent back in time to be the protector of John Connor (Edward Furlong). And John's mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton), has become far more combative since she was last seen in the original. In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Sarah is being held at a prison hospital for the criminally insane. John and the Terminator must get her out of there before the film's shapeshifting villain, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), can get to her.
The sensational directorial choices made by Cameron throughout the film, along with the eye-popping visual effects — many of which involved the liquid metal T-1000 — and the moving relationship of John Connor and the Terminator, who essentially becomes a surrogate father to John in the film, helped to create an unforgettable cinematic experience.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day received six Oscar nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Makeup. The film went on to win three Oscars (for its achievements in visual effects, sound effects editing, and makeup).
The Disney renaissance inaugurated by The Little Mermaid (1989) was no fluke as proven by this giddy animated updating of a portion of the classic anthology One Thousand and One Nights. A landmark voice performance by Robin Williams marked a sea change in the use of star voice talent for animated features, and this one also marked the final screen contributions of Oscar-winning lyricist Howard Ashman, who passed away just before the release of Beauty and the Beast (1991) and whose work was completed here by Tim Rice with regular composer Alan Menken. Of the film's five Oscar nominations, Menken won for Best Original Score while he and Rice won Best Original Song for "A Whole New World," which also made history as the only Disney song to win a Grammy for Song of the Year. The film’s summertime success led to the unusual move at the time of direct-to-VHS sequels from Disney, later followed by a live-action remake in 2019 which was directed by Guy Ritchie.
Batman Returns (1992)
The quirky tradition of Christmas-set blockbusters opening during the summer continued with Tim Burton’s highly anticipated follow-up to his superhero action-adventure Batman (1989), with Michael Keaton returning as Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter ego. Here, Batman tangles with three very different foes: the grotesque Penguin (Danny De Vito), the maniacal German Expressionism-inspired tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), and the ferocious but morally conflicted Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer in one of the decade's most iconic performances). Jam-packed with Burton’s signature blend of the whimsical and the terrifying (accompanied by an operatic score), the film marked Keaton’s last appearance as Batman until he returned once again this past June for The Flash.
Jurassic Park (1993)
The term "thrill ride" never fit a movie better than Steven Spielberg's groundbreaking dinosaur extravaganza, based on Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel. The basis for five sequels and the template for numerous dino-sized monster movies ever since, the film stars Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum as renowned researchers brought in by a billionaire (Richard Attenborough) to lend validity to his DNA-based experimental tourist attraction that features living, breathing dinosaurs. The innovative combination of practical and photorealistic CGI visual effects earned the film an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. It also took home Oscars for Best Sound and Best Sound Editing, two awards firmly associated with the subwoofer-rattling approach that was taken for the depiction of the film's terrifying T. rex.
The Fugitive (1993)
One of the most beloved TV shows of the '60s got an action-packed overhaul with Harrison Ford stepping into the fast-running shoes of the falsely accused Dr. Richard Kimble, who's on the hunt for the one-armed man who killed his wife while staying a step ahead of the law, led by Tommy Lee Jones, who won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance as Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard. The harrowing, all-practical train crash escape sequence is one for the history books, and the film ended up snagging an additional six Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects Editing. Jones would come back and reprise his role in a 1998 semi-sequel, U.S. Marshals.
More than living up to its title, this action thriller is the textbook demonstration of how to make a high-velocity version of the three-act classic screenplay structure. Keanu Reeves headlines as Jack Traven, an LAPD bomb disposal expert who becomes one of the targets of a calculating maniac (Dennis Hopper) out to get revenge and collect ransom money. The terrorist, who happens to be a retired police officer and an expert on bombs, has rigged a city bus with a bomb that will explode and kill all of its passengers if the speed of the bus drops below 50 mph once it's already gotten up to 50 mph.
Sandra Bullock shot to stardom here as Annie, a passenger who goes to heroic lengths to drive the bus, keep it above 50 mph, and help to save the day. A major hit of adrenaline in the legendary summer of '94, Speed would go on to receive three Oscar nominations: Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects Editing. It ultimately won Oscars for its sound and its sound effects editing.
The film co-stars Jeff Daniels, showing off his impressive range in a dramatic performance as a heroic police officer in the same year that he starred in one of the most beloved comedies of the decade, Dumb and Dumber, alongside Jim Carrey. Although the two characters that Daniels played have very little in common, they both happen to be named Harry.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Robert Zemeckis directed this sprawling look at 20th century American history as seen through the eyes of Alabaman Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks). Adapted by Eric Roth from Winston Groom’s more caustic source novel, the epic comedy-drama — one of the most quotable films from the '90s — depicts approximately 30 years of Forrest's life, from dealing with physical and cognitive challenges as a boy to fighting in Vietnam as a young man to captaining a shrimp boat and having a tragic relationship with lifelong friend and love interest Jenny (Robin Wright) as an adult. The masterful CGI effects that blended Forrest into actual news footage from the 1960s led to an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects. Forrest Gump received 12 other Oscar nominations, including Best Cinematography and Best Original Score. Ultimately, the film won a total of six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. It also won for the aforementioned visual effects, and Hanks pulled off the rare feat of winning back-to-back Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscars, first with Philadelphia (1993), and then with this.
The Lion King (1994)
Realizing the potential for its summer blockbusters with animated features after Aladdin, Disney delivered an even bigger smash hit with this epic story of lion cub Simba who flees his pride after mistakenly believing he’s responsible for the tragic death of his monarch father Mufasa. Simba grows up in a faraway oasis with his new friends Timon, a meerkat, and Pumbaa, a warthog. When Simba's childhood friend Nala finds him and tells him how horrible conditions have become back at the pride under the rule of Simba's sinister uncle, Scar, Simba knows that he must return home and set things right.
The beloved film features an impressive voice cast that includes Oscar nominee James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Rowan Atkinson, Robert Guillaume, Moira Kelly, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings, and Oscar winners Jeremy Irons and Whoopi Goldberg. The classic songs by Elton John and Tim Rice like "Hakuna Matata" and the Oscar-winning "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" have become part of our popular culture, while Hans Zimmer's score (also an Oscar winner) is instantly recognizable by all ages. The film went on to become a stage hit on Broadway and all around the world, and Jon Favreau directed an all-CGI remake of the film in 2019.
Apollo 13 (1995)
A harrowing real-life suspense story from America’s space exploration history came to vivid life in Ron Howard's white-knuckle depiction of the ill-fated 1970 lunar expedition that endangered the lives of its crew (here played by Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton). A stellar supporting cast on the ground including Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, and Kathleen Quinlan add to the intensity of the film, the result of extensive research and visual effects wizardry to create an intense "you are there" experience even for those who know how it all really ended. Apollo 13 received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Harris, and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Quinlan, and went on to win an Oscar for Best Film Editing and another for Best Sound.
After the longest hiatus in the series' history (seven years), James Bond made a rousing comeback and entered the '90s with Pierce Brosnan taking over as 007. Future Oscar winner Judi Dench also made her first appearance here as M, while the late Tina Turner provided the blazing theme song (written by Bono and The Edge). Game of Thrones' Sean Bean and one of the series' best femme fatales, Famke Janssen, are Bond’s opponents this time in a globe-trotting tale of betrayal and computer mayhem complete with a mid-film tank rampage through St. Petersburg. GoldenEye also inspired a now-legendary video game, and Brosnan would return to play James Bond for three more films.
Bill Paxton conquered summer again one year later, teaming up this time with Helen Hunt to play a pair of storm chasers on a dangerous mission against mother nature. Director Jan de Bont, whose directorial debut Speed appeared earlier on this list, delivered another action-adventure packed with thrilling sequences. CGI and extensive audio creativity (including wild animal noises) were used to bring the actual tornadoes to life on-screen.
Twister went on to become a blockbuster in spite of its famously challenging shoot in the American Midwest. The film had, in fact, one of the biggest box office openings ever at the time of its release. Twister would ultimately get Oscar nominations for Best Sound and Best Visual Effects.
Independence Day (1996)
A staple since the '50s, the flag-waving combat film featuring alien invaders was updated and transformed into a must-see summer event from the blockbuster team of director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin. Will Smith, Bill Pullman, and Jeff Goldblum headline the story of an extraterrestrial siege on planet Earth that leads to an epic pushback by humanity on the 4th of July. An Oscar winner for its lavish visual effects (which appropriately dominated all of the marketing artwork as well), the film became the highest grossing film of a very competitive year (and one of the biggest summer blockbuster seasons of all time).
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Mission: Impossible is undoubtedly the film from the summer of '96 with the largest presence in the present day, with the seventh entry in its franchise, Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, released just last month and in theaters now. This updating and complete rethinking of the hit '60s and '70s espionage TV series stars Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, part of a covert government team called the INF who handle international crisis situations.
Director Brian De Palma brought his trademark flair to the inaugural film, which features hair-raising sequences in each act, such as its helicopter vs. TGV train climax. The sleek spy approach here has since evolved multiple times over the course of the franchise with subsequent esteemed filmmakers, including John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, and Christopher McQuarrie.
MORE: Essential Tom Cruise Movies to Watch
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Since Michael Crichton had already written a sequel novel to Jurassic Park in the wake of the initial film, it was only natural for Spielberg to return to the director's chair for a look at the events following the island-wide breakdown. Goldblum returns here (not for the last time) as Malcolm in another expedition through dinosaur territory, though the canvas widens this time to encompass a kaiju-style shift to San Diego for the grand finale. This return visit features a treebound suspense set piece that had audiences screaming, and led to several more sequels, though this would be the last one directed by Spielberg.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The experience of American soldiers on the ground during World War II came to vivid life for a new generation with Spielberg's gritty combat drama starring Hanks as the head of a rescue team sent to retrieve the last surviving son among siblings killed in combat. Based on a variety of true accounts from veterans, the film portrays both the horrors of war (including an intense opening Omaha Beach attack) and the valor of those who fought for their country. Saving Private Ryan received 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Hanks, and went on to win Oscars for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects Editing.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
At the end of the decade, George Lucas' space saga returned to the big screen for the first time since 1983 and finally delivered the "Episode I" that fans had been speculating about for years. Outfitted with new CGI landscapes and creatures, the film tells the origin story of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), while also introducing audiences to Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and the young woman he's assigned to protect, Queen Padmé (Natalie Portman). The Phantom Menace also introduced the striking villain Darth Maul. And the legendary John Williams returned with a triumphant music score, including the fan favorite "Duel of the Fates." The film received Oscar nominations for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects Editing.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
August of '99 suddenly got very chilly with the surprise word-of-mouth success of this ghost story, which elicited as many emotional tears as shrieks from the audience. Bruce Willis stars as Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist whose latest client, young Cole (Haley Joel Osment), has a fraught relationship with mother Toni Collette due to his ability to "see dead people… all the time." The film’s twist ending initially earned much of the film's buzz, but its affecting performances and potent visual style earned repeat viewings and made it a crossover film far beyond the horror genre. The Sixth Sense received six Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for M. Night Shyamalan, Best Film Editing, Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Collette, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Osment, who became one of the youngest actors ever nominated for a performance.
The Mummy (1999)
In this radical reworking of the 1932 Universal monster classic, future Oscar winners Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz star as a pair of mid-'20s adventurers seeking a secret Egyptian tomb. In the process, they contend with the supernaturally revived, mummified Imhotep whose dark forbidden romance from ages past will lead to multiple deaths. The genre switch from mystical horror to sweeping adventure film brought out the endearing chemistry between its two leads, who both returned along with director Stephen Sommers for a sequel, The Mummy Returns (2001), one of several projects inspired by this film's success as a popcorn movie of the highest order.