Top 10 Sci-Fi Movies That Were Better Than Expected

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Top 10 Sci-Fi Movies That Were Better Than Expected

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Garrett Alden
Nobody saw these sci-fi films coming! For this list, we'll be looking at science fiction films that achieved surprising success and/or were much better than anyone believed they would be. Our countdown includes "Moon", "The Terminator", “Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope”, and more!
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Top 10 Sci-Fi Movies That Exceeded Expectations


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the top 10 sci-fi movies that exceeded expectations.

For this list, we’ll be looking at science fiction films that achieved surprising success and/or were much better than anyone believed they would be.

If there’s a surprisingly good sci-fi movie that you were shocked to see us leave out, please be sure to tell us about it in the comments!

#10: “Pitch Black” (2000)

David Twohy’s action horror film follows a group of survivors whose spaceship crashes on an alien world. They soon encounter deadly creatures that only come out at night. When the planet’s long night begins, they’re forced to rely on violent criminal Richard B. Riddick to survive—because he can see in the dark. Between its relatively modest budget and lack of established action stars for the time, “Pitch Black” had everything working against it. However, the movie proved to be a surprising success. It doubled its profits at the box office and became a cult hit. The film also helped make Vin Diesel into an action star and spawned two sequels. It’s a “moment WE want to remember.”

#9: “Moon” (2009)

An astronaut working an extended solo mining mission on the moon learns that he may no longer be alone when he encounters a clone of himself. Although Duncan Jones’s directorial debut feature film was made on a small Hollywood budget of $5 million and didn’t dominate the box office, “Moon” managed to turn a profit. But its true success lies with its critical reception. Character actor Sam Rockwell’s dual lead performance as the astronaut and his clone earned tons of acclaim. The film’s story also received plenty of praise, particularly from the scientific community. To paraphrase another famous man on the moon, “Moon” may seem like a small step for movies, but it felt like a giant leap for cinema.

#8: “Looper” (2012)

Before director Rian Johnson became, depending on who you talk to, the best or worst thing to happen to “Star Wars,” he made this intriguing sci-fi flick. The film follows Joe, a gunman who disposes of victims sent from the future. But everything changes when he fails to take out his future self. His older counterpart quickly escapes and leaves Joe in a world of trouble. Although “Looper” features some impressive star power, its average budget and the relatively unknown director kept expectations low. The film’s major success at the box office proved that anyone who underestimated it was just “out of the loop.”

#7: “District 9” (2009)

When one million malnourished aliens arrive on Earth, they’re made second class citizens and placed in an internment camp. This leads to severe mistreatment. One hapless government official learns what it’s like for the aliens firsthand when he starts transforming into one of them. The film’s documentary style lends it a sense of gritty reality. Even when the screen is full of special effects, everything that happens feels down to earth. A sci-fi movie set in South Africa that serves as an allegory for Apartheid sounds like a recipe for controversy instead of a blockbuster. However, viral marketing and word of mouth led to “District 9” becoming a surprise smash hit.

#6: “Back to the Future” (1985)

Let’s travel back in time to the ‘80s for a moment. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale have been shopping around a script for a time travel movie that has been rejected at least 40 times! But eventually, it gets made. While Zemeckis and Gale truly believed in the project, they could have never expected it to become the pop culture juggernaut people know and love today. “Back to the Future” received numerous accolades and spawned multiple sequels, a TV cartoon, and even a musical! Marty and Doc Brown’s time-traveling adventure has become a crucial sci-fi staple. It’s hard to believe that there was ever any doubt it would be 1.21 giga-watts of fun.

#5: “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

Sure, this film was a box office disappointment, but then again, so was the original “Blade Runner”! Although it performed poorly in theaters, the first “Blade Runner” has since been hailed as a masterpiece. Anything with that kind of reputation is going to be a tough act to follow - especially since the film had a new director and added another writer to the script. Fortunately, critics loved “Blade Runner 2049” too. Its stunning visuals and fresh, yet familiar themes about the human condition added up to a movie that was every bit as fascinating as its predecessor.

#4: “The Matrix” (1999)

While Keanu Reeves had appeared in a few hit films throughout the ’90s, he still was far from the superstar he is today. This is probably why he wasn’t the studio’s first choice to play Neo. In addition, the plot of “The Matrix” seemed pretty out there for the time. But all the doubts and everyone’s minds were blown away by the intriguing philosophical concepts and groundbreaking special effects. “The Matrix” not only became a runaway success, but it also spawned two live-action sequels with a third on the way. It also inspired many imitators and probably helped the leather clothing industry make a mint!

#3: “The Terminator” (1984)

It’s hard to believe that the tale of a robot assassin sent back to terminate the mother of humanity’s future leader wasn’t seen as a potential hit before its release. Okay, maybe we see why people were skeptical. It also didn’t help that before this project, the only movie James Cameron directed was “Piranha II: The Spawning.” Even star Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t sure if playing “The Terminator” was a good idea at first. But “The Terminator” proved to be more memorable than anyone could have foreseen. Not only was it a tremendous success at the box office, but it jump-started a massive franchise that’s endured for decades.

#2: “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)

Who knew the friendship between a young boy and an alien would resonate with so many people? Before “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'' became a cinematic classic, it had to overcome huge obstacles from its own studio. Several high ranking people at Columbia Pictures, the company who originally had the rights to the film, thought E.T. was too much of a kids’ movie to be successful at the box office. When Universal made a deal to distribute the film, it became the highest-grossing movie in history up to that point. Since then, “E.T.” has been re-released in theaters, brought in generations of fans, and immortalized Reese’s Pieces.

Before we get to our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011)
After Burton’s Panned Reboot This Movie “Rose” to the Occasion

“Star Trek” (2009)
This Reboot Boldly Went Where Few Had Gone Before

“Edge of Tomorrow” (2014)
A Familiar Time Loop Narrative Was Improved with Epic Action

“Gattaca” (1997)
It Was a Box Office Flop, But Critics Loved Its Take on Genetic Engineering

“Dark City” (1998)
Many Assumed It Was a “Matrix” Rip-Off, But Dark City Came Out First

#1: “Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope” (1977)

We know, we know. It seems impossible now to think that “Star Wars” wouldn’t succeed. But the confidence wasn’t strong with this film before its release. The studio thought an adaptation of “The Other Side of Midnight” novel would be their hit. On opening day, “Star Wars” was screened in a grand total of 32 theaters. Even George Lucas himself wasn’t sure that it would be a success. He realized it was big when he saw fans going crazy for it on the news. It proceeded to smash records and become the highest-grossing movie ever made at the time. It also launched a huge multimedia franchise and is still a dominant force in pop culture today. Meanwhile, we doubt you’ve heard of “The Other Side of Midnight”!
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