On July 8, 2011, the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis will suit up, strap themselves in and bring supplies to the International Space Station. This is the last time the shuttle will ever leave the Earth’s atmosphere. Some 26 years after its Oct. 3, 1985, maiden launch from the Kennedy Space Center, it will be retired for good, and with that NASA’s Space Shuttle program will come to an end.
After Atlantis is decommissioned, it will take its place in the Kennedy Space Center as part of an exhibit opening in 2013. There are plans for a Mars landing and further exploration of the lunar surface, and as recently as 2006 there were plans to establish a permanent base on the moon. So just because the Space Shuttle program is being retired, it doesn’t mean that space exploration will stop. Fascination with outer space is simply too great for that to happen.
This allure is most vividly depicted in the movies. One of the earliest examples is Le Voyage Dans La Lune (also known as A Trip to the Moon), a silent French film made in 1902 by Georges Méliès. It depicts a team of cosmonauts whose rocket is launched from a cannon, famously depositing the rocket in the Man in the Moon’s eye. It’s acknowledged as the first science fiction movie, and it’s the first known movie to depict space travel.
Since then, space travel has been the subject of different films across different genres and eras. Some have been undisputed classics, such as the Buck Rogers serials and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some have been camp classics, like Barbarella and the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, notable for its kitschy visual effects and soundtrack by the rock group Queen. It has also been the subject of some of the cinema’s less proud accomplishments, as anyone who’s suffered through Plan 9 from Outer Space or Galaxy of Terror can attest. However, even some of the worst films mentioned herein have been inspired by a sincere fascination with space travel.
CNBC.com collected the domestic gross of movies about space travel, using data from BoxOfficeMojo.com. For franchises with multiple films, we averaged the box office return of all the films in each series. The calculations presented here are not adjusted for inflation and do not reflect rising ticket prices.
What are the highest-grossing films about space travel? Click ahead to find out.
By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 6 July 2011
Domestic gross (franchise average): $92 million
On Sept. 8, 1966, the NBC television network premiered a show called Star Trek. It featured a diverse crew of space explorers who boldly went where no one had gone before, but despite its originality and ground-breaking vision, it was cancelled after a mere three seasons due to low ratings. However, when the show went into reruns it found its audience, and became a cult phenomenon.
In the wake of the blockbuster success of Star Wars, film studios searched for properties to capitalize on the newly inspired science fiction craze. Star Trek was ideal source material, and Paramount Pictures released Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released in 1982, and four further installments starring the original television cast made it to the silver screen.
The cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation took over the film franchise in 1994 with Star Trek: Generations. In 2009, Lost creator J.J. Abrams directed Star Trek, a franchise reboot that was well received and earned almost $258 million in the U.S. To date, the Star Trek franchise has earned more than $1 billion at the domestic box office.
Domestic gross: $101 million
Contact was directed by Robert Zemeckis, of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump fame. Based on the 1985 Carl Sagan novel, it depicts the first interaction between humans and a highly advanced alien race. The film stars Jodie Foster as the scientist who discovers the extraterrestrial species.
Contact was released on July 11, 1997, to positive reviews, such as ReelViews.net critic James Bernardinelli’s claim that it was comparable to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It earned $21 million in its opening weekend, coming in second place to Men in Black, and earned a total domestic gross of $101 million.
Domestic gross: $119 million
The 1990 film Total Recall mostly takes place on the planet Mars. However, the movie is most memorable for the acts of brutal violence with which Arnold Schwarzenegger dispatches every evil henchman unfortunate enough to wander onscreen. It is one of the 38th governor of California’s most bone-crunchingly violent films, as well as one of his best.
Based on the Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, the movie was helmed by Robocop director Paul Verhoeven, Schwarzenegger’s personal choice. Total Recall opened to hugely successful business, earning $26 million in its opening weekend and going on to make $119 million at the U.S. box office. A remake starring Colin Farrell is scheduled to open in 2012.
Domestic gross: $140 million
In 1998, a spectacular film with an all-star cast was released in which the earth is threatened by a giant asteroid, and a crew of brave astronauts represent mankind’s last, best hope to avert a global catastrophe. Although the Michael Bay epic Armageddon fits this description almost exactly, it was beaten to the punch by Deep Impact, which was released two months beforehand.
Of the two asteroid-menace films released in 1998, Deep Impact was less successful. However, it still performed well, earning $140 million at the U.S. box office. It also received a fair-to-middling critical reaction that easily dwarfed that of the critically savaged Armageddon. The film was directed by Mimi Leder and was the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman until Twilight, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, was released 10 years later.
Domestic gross: $173 million
The Apollo 13 mission was the third intended to land on the moon. Launched in April 1970, it was aborted when an oxygen tank exploded aboard the spacecraft and damaged its electrical system, making a moon landing impossible and throwing into question the crew’s ability to land safely on earth. With the combined efforts of the astronauts, NASA and grounded mission pilot Ken Mattingly, the crew came home, shaken but alive.
Apollo 13, the film, was directed by Ron Howard and released in 1995. Starring Tom Hanks, it received an overwhelmingly positive critical response and was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It made $173 million in its opening weekend and went on to become the 3rd highest grossing film of 1995.
Domestic gross: $202 million
The Bruce Willis vehicle Armageddon was the second killer-asteroid movie of 1998 and the more commercially successful of the two. Released two months after Deep Impact, it told the story of a team of oil rig workers sent into space by NASA to drill a hole in an asteroid the size of Texas, bury a nuclear bomb deep inside of it and detonate it.
Armageddon received many bad reviews. Roger Ebert described it as “loud, ugly” and an “ordeal,” and today it sits alongside Battlefield Earth and Caligula as one of the critic’s most hated movies. To add insult to injury, NASA began a practice of showing the film at its management-training program to see who can find the most inaccuracies, with a record 168 of them found as of 2007. Regardless, it earned $202 million and was the 2nd highest grossing film of 1998, demonstrating that moviegoers rarely attend killer asteroid movies for their accuracy.
Domestic gross: $224 million
Pixar had another in its long line of profitable releases in 2008 when it released WALL-E. Set in the distant future, the movie follows its namesake robot, whose job is to clean up a planet Earth so strewn with garbage and pollution that human beings have deserted it.
While he’s on the job, WALL-E meets a robot named EVE and falls in love with her. When she returns to her spaceship, the smitten robot follows her and encounters the remnants of the human race, who have chosen to live on their spaceships instead of returning to Earth.
The conservationist robots-in-love movie opened at the number one spot, which by now was standard operating procedure for any Pixar film. It made $63 million its opening weekend and earned $200 million in a mere six weeks. It went on to earn $224 million at the U.S. box office.
Domestic gross (franchise average): $274 million
When the first Star Wars film was released in 1977, director George Lucas simply hoped that the movie set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” would generate enough ticket sales to justify the two sequels that he wanted to make. It did. The trilogy became a cultural event so popular that he was able to make a second, equally profitable trilogy, in addition to a line of toys, clothing and other merchandise that forever revolutionized the way fantasy films are marketed.
The epic story of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and Jar Jar Binks has now been in business for over 30 years, long enough to be embraced by a new generation of fans who were not even born yet when Revenge of the Sith was released in 2005. Plans for the franchise’s future now involve 3D releases, a possible television series and countless books, comics and video games. The shelf life of this franchise has already far outlasted its creator’s wildest dreams, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Domestic gross: $306 million
The second half of the 1990s was marked by a resurgence of disaster films, such as Titanic and Twister. The science fiction genre was represented by 1996’s Independence Day, which depicts a spectacular alien attack on planet Earth, in which such landmarks as the Empire State Building and the White House are destroyed by extraterrestrials. The film features howlingly implausible plot points, such as the defeat of the alien peril at the hands of a Mac PowerBook. However, it was a huge success anyway, and it became the highest-grossing film of 1996.
Independence Day benefited from a shrewd advertising campaign, including the placement of TV spots during the Super Bowl, a new venue for film promotion at the time. When the movie opened, it earned $104 million in its first week of release. Critical reactions were mixed, but that couldn’t dampen the film’s undeniable crowd-pleasing potential, and it went on to earn $306 million at the U.S. box office.
Domestic gross: $761 million
James Cameron’s Avatar is not just the highest-grossing space movie of all time, it’s the highest-grossing movie of all time, period. It takes place on the distant planet Pandora, which human beings are mining for a mineral so precious it’s called “unobtainium.”
Cameron had not directed a movie since Titanic 12 years earlier. Though much of the time had been spent developing the technology needed to render the film, moviegoers, critics and industry insiders speculated openly that he would never achieve the success of his previous film.
The film was released to overwhelming and unprecedented box office success. It was a good thing too, since it was easily one of the most expensive movies ever made. Rumors persisted that it may have cost as much as $500 million to bring it to the screen. Producer 20th Century Fox had even taken the step of opening Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel opposite Avatar, just in case the science fiction epic tanked and they needed to have a profitable film out there to help them cut their losses.