10 biggest sci-fi hits of all time, ranked by adjusted box-office gross

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Thanks to Box Office Mojo, fans can see exactly how their favorite movies’ box office numbers translate to the current dollar value. Since some of the most notable sci-fi movies came out decades ago, their listed gross numbers can be a bit misleading. For example, George Lucas’ landmark achievement Star Wars was released in 1977. Due to inflation since then, the buying power of $1 in 1977 is equal to about $5.25 in 2023. That’s a significant difference!

Contents

  • 10. Ghostbusters (1984): $667,872,049
  • 9. Jurassic World (2015): $719,633,803
  • 8. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999): $846,224,377
  • 7. Jurassic Park (1993): $860,163,189
  • 6. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983): $881,336,578
  • 5. Avatar (2009): $911,790,952
  • 4. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980): $920,818,947
  • 3. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015): $1,013,038,487
  • 2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982): $1,329,174,791
  • 1. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977): $1,668,979,715

The biggest domestic sci-fi hits of all time when adjusted by box-office gross reveal how a few franchises have a viselike hold on the genre. Here are the top 10 sci-fi hits of all time when adjusted for inflation based on the 2022 ticket price.

10. Ghostbusters (1984): $667,872,049

The three main characters from the original Ghostbusters film in full outfits.
Columbia Pictures

Who you gonna call? As wonderful and playful as the theme song that every cinephile knows by heart, 1984’s Ghostbusters is a hilarious sci-fi trip featuring some of the funniest comedic minds of the generation. Starring Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Dan Aykroyd, Ghostbusters asks: What if the supernatural were real? Wouldn’t we need some people to take care of these ghosts? Well, that’s why we have the Ghostbusters.

The stars play a trio of scientists who utilize high-tech gadgets to capture New York City’s supernatural beings, varying from annoying blob monsters to truly terrifying evils. When the Ghostbusters stumble upon a gateway to another dimension, these disgraced scientists must now save New York from complete destruction. Ghostbusters — which has now spawned three more films, as well as TV shows, comics, and video games — is an iconic classic. Directed by Ivan Reitman, Ghostbusters is as hilarious as it is sheer good fun.

9. Jurassic World (2015): $719,633,803

Jurassic World
Universal Pictures

Finally, the park is open. In 2015, Jurassic World showed audiences what a fully realized dinosaur theme park might look like, terror and death included. Starring Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World brought the wonder of dinosaurs to a new generation. The film sees the park in full operation, but a genetic experiment on a new kind of dinosaur leads to havoc. The Indominus Rex, a vicious and highly intelligent beast created by Jurassic World scientists, escapes and sets off a chain reaction of failures across the park.

With hundreds of tourists dead, it’s up to Pratt’s Owen Grady and Howard’s Claire Dearing to restore order. The movie is largely a reprise of 1993’s Jurassic Parkbut it’s still a highly effective sci-fi flick. With inventive narrative turns and fun worldbuilding, Jurassic World makes for a great movie night.

8. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999): $846,224,377

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan dueling Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace.
Lucasfilms

One of the more maligned movies in the Star Wars franchise, the 1999 film Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace kicked off the prequel trilogy that would focus largely on Anakin Skywalker’s descent into the all-powerful Sith lord Darth Vader. The Phantom Menace introduces fans to young versions of some favorite characters from the original trilogy, including Obi-Wan Kenobi and, of course, Anakin Skywalker.

The movie follows young apprentice Obi-Wan and his legendary Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) as they restore order across the galaxy and encounter a 9-year-old boy who has the potential to bring balance to the Force. While The Phantom Menace is a deeply flawed movie consisting mostly of exposition, there are some fun moments for fans of the franchise. The final battle with Darth Maul is one of the best lightsaber fights in the IP’s history, and Jar Jar Binks will always make for a great meme.

7. Jurassic Park (1993): $860,163,189

Dr. Grant distracts the T-Rex in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures / Universal Pictures

Jurassic Park won’t be the only Steven Spielberg movie on this list, but it might just be his most influential. The 1993 film is a classic, delightfully showcasing Spielberg’s impressive direction and storytelling chops. When paleontologists Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) tour an island theme park populated by dinosaurs created from prehistoric DNA, things take a turn for the worst.

There’s not much to be said about Jurassic Park that hasn’t already been said before; it is amongthe finest pieces of blockbuster American cinema, a film that simultaneously evokes childlike awe and blood-curdling terror.

6. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983): $881,336,578

Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker's final battle in Return of the Jedi.
Lucasfilm

The end of George Lucas’ first Star Wars trilogy happens to be the least-highest grossing of the bunch, but that doesn’t truly reflect its quality. The original trilogy will always be revered and remembered for its genre-defining worldbuilding, and Return of the Jedi does not disappoint as a conclusion.

Return of the Jedi sees Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and the Rebel Alliance in a state of disarray after the events of The Empire Strikes Back. Now, Luke must save Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and bring balance to the Force by defeating the evil Emperor Palpatine. Return of the Jedi is a beautiful and effective conclusion to an amazing sci-fi trilogy, bringing a number of arcs and narrative threads to a satisfying end.

5. Avatar (2009): $911,790,952

An alien preps to fight in Avatar.
20th Century Studios

As visually stunning as it is narratively complex, James Cameron’s 2009 smash-hit Avatar is massive in every sense of the word. Set in the future on a lush planet called Pandora, the movie follows paralyzed former marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as his entire life is turned upside down when he encounters the planet’s native peoples, the Na’vi. Jake, who inhabits a Na’vi body to allow for free movement on Pandora, learns about and comes to care deeply about the highly evolved species. His human counterparts, though, only desire conquest.

As Jake’s bond with the Na’vi, particularly Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), grows, he is drawn into a battle for the survival of Pandora. The movie is rightfully adored for its visual accomplishment; Cameron and the VFX team changed cinema with the lush, lifelike wonders of Pandora. However, the film is also an astounding piece of science fiction cinema, one in which Cameron’s ideals on environmentalism and treatment toward native peoples are as loud as the banshees that the Na’vi warriors ride into battle.

4. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980): $920,818,947

Blu-Ray deals
Lucasfilm

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back might just be the best movie of the series. In fact, it might even be one of the greatest sci-fi blockbusters ever made. The highly anticipated follow-up to 1977’s A New Hope is one of the greatest sequel movies ever made. Instead of furthering the successes of our protagonists, it thrusts them backwards.

Everything in Empire Strikes Back seems to be throwing the Rebel Alliance into chaos and, by the end, fans are left in shock. Han Solo is frozen in carbonite, and Luke loses his arm in a battle with Darth Vader. It’s also impossible to not mention the galaxy-shattering twist that comes in this movie’s final act. The words “I am your father” will forever be enshrined in Hollywood history thanks to Empire Strikes Back.

3. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015): $1,013,038,487

Kylo Ren in Star Wars The Force Awakens

Another Star Wars movie, another era of Jedi. It’s hard to underestimate the hype and anticipation around 2015’s The Force Awakens as it was a cultural centerpiece. After 10 years with no new Star Wars movies, The Force Awakens looked to move the franchise’s story into a new era. The film, the first of the franchise’s three sequel films, introduces fans to Daisy Ridley’s Rey, a Force-sensitive woman from the sands of Jakku. Set 30 years after the Battle of Endor, the First Order has risen from the fallen Galactic Empire and seeks to end the New Republic.

The Resistance, led by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), seeks to end the First Order before it unleashes a planet-destroying weapon much more powerful than the Death Star. The Force Awakens isn’t the best Star Wars film, but it’s an inoffensive and largely satisfying reintroduction to the Star Wars universe. Outfitted with a new lineup of heroes and villains alike, The Force Awakens reestablished Star Wars as the Mount Everest of science fiction.

2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982): $1,329,174,791

Elliot stares at E.T. in E.T.
Universal Pictures

Steven Spielberg really knows how to make an effective, crowd-pleasing, and wildly successful science fiction film. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial follows a young boy named Elliott after he discovers and befriends a gentle alien that is stranded on Earth. Elliott cares for E.T. as if he were his own sibling, bringing the extraterrestrial into his suburban California house.

When E.T. begins to fall sick, Elliott and his family must find a way for E.T. to go home. The movie is a heartfelt, wonderful portrait of love, family, and home. Born out of Spielberg’s own experiences with his parent’s divorce, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial shows that not all sci-fi has to be laser blasters and spaceship battles.

1. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977): $1,668,979,715

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford as Luke, Leia, and Han in Star Wars.
Image via LucasfIlm

The movie that started it all, 1977’s Star Wars is likely the most influential movie on this entire list. From the mind of director George Lucas comes this indelible space opera set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The Galactic Empire, a cruel government that quells its foes with deadly force, is led by evil Sith lords who tap into the dark side of the Force to grant themselves horrible, yet immensely powerful abilities.

The Rebel Alliance, a resistance group, seeks to destroy the Empire. Enter Luke Skywalker, a young man with a powerful tie to the Force. Luke — with help from Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO — hones his Force abilities to help the Rebels in their fight against Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine.

A New Hope is a dense, beautiful artifact of American cinema that holds up to intense scrutiny from the modern eye. It’s a classic, one that forever changed the science fiction genre.

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