A scene from Chappie.
Photograph by Stephanie Blomkamp — CTMG, Inc

These movies rarely win critical accolades, but science fiction movies aren’t made for the critics. They’re made for the fans.

By Daniel Bukszpan
March 6, 2015

On Friday, “Chappie” comes to movie theaters around the world. It was directed by Neill Blomkamp, whom you may recall was the director of 2009’s “District 9.” That movie was one of the rare science fiction movies to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, but sadly, it lost to the “The Hurt Locker.”

For sci-fi, that’s par for the course. The movies rarely win critical accolades, much less Oscar nominations, and to date, no science fiction movie has ever gone home with the statuette. But science fiction movies aren’t made for the critics. They’re made for the fans.

And what rabid fans they are, dressing up in full Imperial Stormtrooper regalia to line up around the block and see the first screening at midnight on opening day. So movie studios keep making them, knowing they’ll make more money than they made with “Birdman,” or “The Hurt Locker” for that matter.

Fortune decided to take a look at the 10 highest-grossing science-fiction movies of all time, using data from Box Office Mojo and adjusting for inflation.

Here they are below, starting with number 10.

Spoiler alert: You may see the name of a certain franchise repeated more than a few times.


10. Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones (2002)

Courtesy of LucasFilms

The “Star Wars” prequel trilogy told the story of a young Jedi who grows up to become Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith. The critical reception that the trilogy received could politely be described as “lukewarm.”

Fans had issues with it too, and the second installment in the trilogy, 2002’s ”Attack of the Clones,” won the dubious distinction of being the least commercially successful film in the “Star Wars” canon. Still, it earned $311 million, the equivalent of $404 million in 2015, so it squeaks its way onto the bottom rung of this list.


9. Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Courtesy of LucasFilms

The third and final episode in the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy told the age-old story of what happens when you have a lightsaber fight with your Jedi mentor. That is, you roll into a river of molten lava, your charred body gets put into a black suit, and you become known as Darth Vader.

Fans bestowed upon 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith” a $380 million domestic box office take that’s good for $455 million today. Darth Vader remains an iconic figure in worldwide popular culture, as demonstrated by his presence on ballots in the Ukrainian prime ministerial election of 2014.


8. Independence Day (1996)

INDEPENDENCE DAY, 1996, TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection.
Photograph by 20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

Don’t you just hate it when aliens invade your home planet, destroy major cities and massacre millions of people? Well, thanks to the 1996 movie “Independence Day,” we learned that all you have to do to defeat this menace is bring a laptop aboard the alien mothership and upload a virus to its computer which, as luck would have it, is fully compatible with Apple  AAPL  software. That Steve Jobs really was a visionary genius.

Holes in the plot aside — and there were lots of them — the movie was fully embraced by audiences, who bought $306 million worth of tickets, or $456 million today. A sequel is in the works, but it will not feature the original’s biggest star, Will Smith, because, as director Roland Emmerich said, “he’s too expensive.”


7. Back to the Future (1985)

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

“Back to the Future” starred Michael J. Fox as an underachieving teenager who travels back in time 30 years. When he gets there, he meets the teenaged version of his mother, who instantly becomes sexually attracted to him. Hilarity ensues.

The movie was the highest-grossing film of 1985, taking in $211 million at the domestic box office, the equivalent of $458 million today. Two vastly inferior sequels were released in 1989 and 1990, and a stage musical version is set to debut in London’s West End in 2015, according to BBC News.


6. Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace (1999)

Courtesy of LucasFilms

Few films in celluloid history have been as eagerly anticipated as the first installment in the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, 1999’s “The Phantom Menace.” To say that it failed to meet expectations is putting it mildly.

Although poorly received by fans and critics, it was surrounded by so much hype that most of the moviegoing public went to see it anyway, just to see what the fuss was all about. That was enough to propel its domestic box-office take to $475 million, or $666 million in 2015 dollars.


5. Return of the Jedi (1983)

Courtesy of LucasFilms

1983’s “Return of the Jedi” earned $309 million at the domestic box office, the equivalent of $725 million today. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either the best movie in the original “Star Wars” trilogy or the worst.

If you ask anyone who was a teenager when it came out, they’ll say it’s the worst, thanks to the cuddly Ewoks. If you ask any child under the age of eight, they’ll say it’s the best, for the same reason. Since the entire franchise (including the much-maligned prequels) is being kept alive today by the under-eight set, Fortune gives them the edge.


4. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Courtesy of LucasFilms

1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back” is widely regarded as the best film in the entire “Star Wars” saga. This dark, mature film had the thankless task of bridging the gap between the cultural phenomenon that was the 1977 original and the two-hour toy commercial that was “Return of the Jedi,” and it did its job magnificently.

It also contained the four most famous words in science fiction history — “I am your father.” Indeed, when Darth Vader uttered this phrase to Luke Skywalker, there were probably people in the theater who would have been happy to remain seated for the next three years and wait to see how it all turned out. It all added up to a box-office take of $290 million, or $823 million today.


3. Avatar (2009)

L to R, Sam Worthington as Jake Sully and Zoë Saldana as Neytiri PHOTOGRAPHS TO BE USED SOLELY FOR ADVERTISING, PROMOTION, PUBLICITY OR REVIEWS OF THIS SPECIFIC MOTION PICTURE AND TO REMAIN THE PROPERTY OF THE STUDIO. NOT FOR SALE OR REDISTRIBUTION.
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

In terms of raw dollars, James Cameron’s “Avatar” is the highest-grossing movie of all time, at $761 million. After adjusting for inflation, its total is $829 million, thereby leaving the movie two slots shy of the top prize. But don’t worry; they’re going to make three sequels anyway.

In the unlikely event that you haven’t seen this 3-D epic, it’s an intergalactic take on “Dances With Wolves,” with the blue indigenous people of the planet Pandora standing in for the Lakota. It’s also the reason that every major event movie released since then has been in 3-D, a phenomenon of which even Cameron has said he’s had enough.


2. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

In 1982, Steven Spielberg was already the star director of such blockbuster fare as “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But when “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” was unleashed upon the masses that summer, he became a bona fide cultural phenomenon, the rare director who can get mainstream movie fans into theaters simply because his name is on the poster.

The story of a lovable alien stranded on earth, the movie was an immediate hit, and it earned $435 million at the domestic box office, the equivalent of $1 billion today. Spielberg has since gone on to win a reputation as one of the greatest directors in history, but “ET” is most likely to remain his most beloved film.


1. Star Wars (1977)

Carrie Fisher, center, as Princess Leia in 1977's 'Star Wars'
Lucasfilm

The original “Star Wars” tops our list, with a $461 million domestic box office take that translates to $1.8 billion in 2015. Not bad for a movie that faced a huge uphill battle simply to get made. Such major studios as United Artists, Universal and Disney  DIS  all passed on George Lucas’ peculiar little science fiction project, and finally it was 20th Century Fox that grudgingly said yes.

It turned out to be a good decision, as well as a good lesson on the importance of getting in on the ground floor. Walt Disney, one of the original naysayers, bought George Lucas’ production company, Lucasfilm, in 2012 for over $4 billion, considerably more than they would have had to pay if they had just said yes to the first movie, whose budget was $11 million. Their first order of business is a new trilogy of sequels, which starts in December 2015 with “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens.”

Of course, if they had just said “yes” to the first movie, they would have had a ground floor opportunity to own the whole enchilada, but hey — better six episodes late than never.

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