Director Christopher Nolan’s epic space travel film Interstellar rockets into the box office this weekend looking to score a big domestic opening to put it on track for blockbuster territory. While the final weekend results are not yet certain, Interstellar has claimed about $20 million so far through Friday (and $32 million worldwide for the same period), so nobody doubts the film will be among the biggest performers this weekend and likely for the entire year. The only question is, how high can it fly?
Just last year, the hard science hyper-realistic Gravity blew audiences’ minds and pulled down a heavy $716 million in global receipts. And half of the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time are sci-fi flicks of one sort or another. Those five films grossed a combined $7.7 billion at the box office over a period of just under five years (December 2009 through November 2014). The next 50 highest-grossing add an additional $13.6 billion from 19 additional sci-fi oriented movies, or a total of more than $21 billion in revenue from 24 sci-fi pictures out of a total field of 60 films.
This count doesn’t include fantasy films like The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series, which are sometimes included in a broader sci-fi/fantasy count, by the way. But it does include films like the Transformers and Iron Man franchises, where sci-fi elements are clearly featured, although some might say those films are more “science fantasy” since much of their technology isn’t as firmly rooted in true science per se. I’m using a more common-use form of “sci-fi” here, though.
I’m not including TV productions on this list, and am focusing only on feature films. Otherwise, the magnificent From the Earth to the Moon would be here. Likewise, the documentaries In the Shadow of the Moon and IMAX Hubble 3D aren’t included on the list despite being awesome, because I want to stick to traditional narrative feature films. So, consider this their honorary mention, then.
So let’s count down the ten best space travel films of all time, and look at how they performed at the box office…
10. Contact – A realistic approach to the scenario of humanity’s first contact with aliens, and our first attempts to make a trip across the stars to meet them. From a $90 million budget, it grossed $171 million. Fans of hard sci-fi were pleased, although the choice to modify the story by including a preacher who equates science and faith rubbed some viewers the wrong way.
9. 2010: The Year We Make Contact — This oft-forgotten sequel to another film on my list doesn’t try to mimic its predecessor, instead opting for its own more straightforward approach. It’s $40 million box office was a disappointment after production costs of $28 million, but it is actually a great sci-fi tale grounded in realism and featuring a strong cast and marvelous effects.
8. Apollo 13 — One of two true stories on the list, and one of the most widely acclaimed, including nine Oscar nominations including Best Picture. The heightened realism, human drama, and basis in real events helped this $52 million budgeted picture to an enormous $355 million in global box office, and it remains one of the best true stories put to film.