10 most successful sci-fi movies at the Oscars

Gravity - most successful sci-fi movies at the Oscars
(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

We don't see sci-fi movies at the Oscars as often as we like, but over the years some amazing sci-fi flicks have received the recognition they deserved.

That's right, it’s that time of the year again when celebrities and creative luminaries dust off their tuxedos or ball gowns to join the pomp and pageantry that is the Academy Award Ceremony. 

Sunday, March 27, 2022 is the date set for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 94th edition of this gala event that recognizes outstanding achievements from Hollywood’s finest actors, directors, screenwriters, editors, composers, producers, cinematographers, costumers, special effects gurus, and sound technicians. The ultimate reward for victory is the iconic golden Oscar statue, recognition of excellence, and the admiration (or envy) from your peers.

Science fiction has had a sticky relationship with the Oscars over the decades, often regarded as low-brow, B-movie fare until Stanley Kubrick’s existential masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey shattered perceptions back in 1968. Then in 1977, George Lucas launched his Star Wars empire that solidified the genre as extremely profitable and ultimately worthy of respect. Even so, only the best sci-fi movies have a chance of winning big at the Oscars.

Over the past few decades there have been many notable winners based on speculative fiction material, whether that's realistic space movies or full-blown sci-fi, but which are the best of the best? Let’s walk down the red carpet and salute the 10 Most Successful Sci-Fi Movies In Oscar History.

10. Aliens 

Aliens_Twentieth Century Fox

(Image credit: Twentieth Century Fox)
  • Release date: July 18, 1986
  • Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn
  • Director: James Cameron
  • Oscar nominations: 7
  • Oscar wins: 2 wins - Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing

James Cameron never wanted to imitate Ridley Scott’s stylish original Alien film and instead went for a gung-ho combat film filled with old-school war movie tropes and a blistering pace that grabs you by the jugular. Colonial Marines are sent back to the hostile planetoid LV-426 to investigate the lost terraforming colony known as Hadley’s Hope. 

The bug hunt begins as soon as boots are on the ground and never ends until Ripley’s final epic confrontation with the menacing Alien Queen back aboard the U.S.S. Sulaco troop transport spaceship. If you want to watch this absolute gem, check out our Alien streaming guide.

9. Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)
  • Release date: June 11, 1993
  • Cast: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Oscar nominations: 3
  • Oscar wins: 3 - Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing

Life finds a way, as seen in the first movie that spawned a billion-dollar dinosaur franchise.  Featuring an exotic island theme park populated with cloned biological attractions, Jurassic Park was a multi-generational crowd-pleaser adapted from author Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel of the same name. 

What’s most shocking about Spielberg’s epic sci-fi adventure is how well the computer-generated dinosaurs hold up after nearly 30 years, which is a testament to the team at Industrial Light and Magic. And kudos to Stan Winston and his team for elevating practical effects to another dimension with their full-size articulated monsters inflicting true terror on viewers. Even after four sequels and a fifth on its way, the original is by far still the best.

8. Black Panther

Black Panther

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)
  • Release date: February 16, 2018
  • Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Andy Serkis
  • Director: Ryan Cooler
  • Oscars nominations:
  • Oscar wins: 3 - Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design

Afrofuturism takes center stage in this mega-successful Marvel movie chronicling the rise of T’Challa, the charismatic king of the secret techno kingdom of Wakanda and its exploitation to acquire the rare exotic metal called Vibranium. It’s a gorgeous movie in every respect and its pounding tribal soundtrack allows for complete immersion into its imaginary comic book world. 

Chadwick Boseman delivers a standout performance as the titular superhero and his untimely passing in 2020 was mourned by fans worldwide. A highly-anticipated sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, arrives in November of 2022 without Boseman or the character being recast. If you want to revisit Wakanda and relive the magic, check out our Marvel streaming guide.

7. Avatar

Avatar 2

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)
  • Release date: December 18, 2009
  • Cast: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana
  • Director: James Cameron
  • Oscars nominations: 7
  • Oscar wins: 3 - Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design

Welcome to the wondrous planet of Pandora, where peaceful native inhabitants called the Na’vi are trying to protect their sacred land from a greedy interstellar corporation bent on destruction and domination. The corporation is trying to mine the rare mineral Unobtainium, which we're pretty sure was a placeholder name that got left in the script. Despite that, Cameron’s lush worldbuilding and inspiring tale of a paraplegic named Jake Sully who enters an artificial body to act as a liaison between the two cultures enthralled audiences to elevate the film to the number one spot on the all-time box office list. 

Its soaring visuals and vibrant biomes captured the hearts and imaginations of sci-fi fans worldwide who are now eagerly awaiting the first of three planned sequels this December. 

6. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2 Judgment Day_Carolco Pictures

(Image credit: Carolco Pictures)
  • Release date: July 3, 1991
  • Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong
  • Director: James Cameron
  • Oscar nominations:  6 
  • Oscar wins: 4 - Best Sound Editing, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, Best Makeup

Just like he told you in 1984’s Terminator, Arnold’s T-800 assassin robot is back for this blockbuster follow-up that most fans and critics feel was the high-water mark for the franchise. 

This version of the indefatigable killing machine has returned to protect Sarah Connor and her future resistance leader son, John, instead of trying to murder them. But a shape-shifting liquid metal upgrade called a T-1000 played to chilling perfection by Robert Patrick is out to reshape the future. Like Cameron’s macho xenomorph hunting mission in Aliens, this Hollywood tentpole is a juggernaut of stunning action set pieces and humanistic pathos. Box office receipts topped $500 million for a theatrical slam-dunk that would inspire four more sequels of diminishing merit.

5. Inception

Inception (2010)

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Release date: July 13, 2010
  • Cast: Leonard DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy
  • Director: Christopher Nolan
  • Oscar nominations: 8
  • Oscar wins: 4 - Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing

Is the totem still twirling? Nolan’s mind-bending tale of a dream insertion team attempting to plant a notion into a billionaire CEO’s brain is slightly confusing but nonetheless an exhilarating ride. It's a great example of a well-executed concept using all the tricks of the cinematic trade. Composer Hans Zimmer’s original score is both brilliant and bombastic and adds another gem to his body of work with Nolan that included Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. 

You might get lost in the movie’s multi-level dreamscapes but you’ll emerge in the end having experienced something totally fresh and fulfilling, even if you can’t explain every last trippy detail.

4. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

E.T. the Extra Terrestrial_Universal Pictures

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)
  • Release date: June 11, 1982
  • Cast: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Oscar nominations: 9
  • Oscar wins: 4 - Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing

The beloved movie that immortalized Reese’s Pieces candy was initially titled A Boy’s Life and began as a much darker coming-of-age movie. When a squat little alien is stranded on Earth he’s discovered by a young boy who befriends the strange creature and welcomes him into his family’s suburban California household. But nefarious government agents are on E.T.’s trail while his new allies attempt to keep him safe and find a way to signal his kind so he can go back to his alien world. 

Special effects master Carlo Rambaldi and his crew created the $1.5 million puppet that made audiences believe and brought the gentle alien to life. This magical film celebrates its 40th birthday in June.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road 

Mad Max: Fury Road

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Release date: May 15, 2015
  • Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
  • Director: George Miller
  • Oscar nominations: 10
  • Oscar wins: 6 - Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design, Best Makeup, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing

The post-apocalyptic wastelands of Earth never looked so cool as in director George Miller’s reboot of Mad Max, the 1979 classic starring Mel Gibson. This gritty resurrection of the burned-out former Main Force Police officer is a visual feast of savage freaks, antihero saviors, tragic villains, and souped-up battle wagons. Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky and Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa made for a formidable couple with searing chemistry up against the evil Immortal Joe. 

It’s all a high-octane, adrenalized thrill ride punctuated by flaming guitars and the driving techno score by Junkie XL. A masterful, modern day fable for unsettling times.

2. Gravity

Gravity movie (2013)

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Release date: October 4, 2013
  • Cast: George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Ed Harris
  • Director: Alfonso Cuaron
  • Oscar nominations: 10 
  • Oscar wins: 7 - Best Original Score, Best Director, Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing

Sweeping outer space vistas combined with a gripping story of astronaut survival made Gravity the must-see movie of 2013 and it was amply rewarded when it came to Academy Awards time. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney portray shuttle crew members who must use their wits and training while attempting to save themselves and return to Earth after space debris destroys their craft. 

Though perceived as slightly over-rated in the past decade, its jaw-dropping visuals from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki remain inspiring and revelatory. Its detailed plot reinforces the irrefutable fact that outer space is a cold, unforgiving environment. 

1. Star Wars: A New Hope

Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope

(Image credit: Disney)
  • Release date: May 25, 1977
  • Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford
  • Director: George Lucas
  • Oscar nominations: 10
  • Oscar wins: 7 - Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Special Achievement For Sound Effects Editing

The original space opera that launched a $70 billion empire was a big winner on Oscar night in 1978, including a rare Special Achievement statue for engineer Ben Burtt who created sound effects for the droids, spaceships, blasters, and lightsabers. 

It's a rousing space spectacle about an ambitious farm boy from the planet Tatooine and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi going to save a princess from the clutches of the Empire and its evil overlord Darth Vader. Along the way, he enlists the help of a handsome smuggler and his “walking carpet” Wookie companion. Star Wars is a sci-fi icon that still feels amazingly fresh as we celebrate its 45th anniversary in May. 

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Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.