The Best Space Opera Movies

Actors Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford on the set of the space opera movie 'Star Wars' (1977)
American actors Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford on the set of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope written, directed, and produced by Georges Lucas.

Sunset Boulevard / Getty Images)

A space opera movie is a film that depicts adventures in deep space, containing elements of science fiction, fantasy, and romance. 

Fun Fact

The highest-grossing film in U.S. box office history is a space opera movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). It grossed over $936 million in U.S. theaters.

What Is a Space Opera Movie?

The term "space opera" is derived from "soap opera," which refers to a long serial narrative featuring melodramatic content. Similar to a soap opera, space opera stories were frequently serialized in print and on screen to depict sweeping, epic-length stories. Unlike general science fiction, space operas may feature concepts that stray far from hard scientific concepts (e.g., the magical "Force" of the Star Wars films).

Though the term space opera did not gain popularity until the 1940s, the style of the genre long predates the term. By the 1920s, stories featuring elements of space operas were popular in science fiction magazines, and gained even more popularity with the launch of comics strips like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. (1929) and Flash Gordon (1934), which were read by millions of fans. The thrilling adventures of these popular characters were later adapted by Universal Pictures into film serials.

Outside of the Flash Gordon serials, studios at the time were uninterested in the significant costs of creating the special effects required for what was, at the time, a genre not widely popular with the moviegoing public. As a result, space opera fiction was enjoyed by fans in inexpensive pulp magazines, which were much cheaper to produce. These types of media inspired George Lucas to create Star Wars. In fact, he originally wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie but could not afford the film rights, and he developed Star Wars instead.

While sci-fi films were very popular in the 1950s, in part because of low budgets, most of them were set in contemporary times and were based on Earth. Typical plotlines involved aliens visiting our planet, such as in 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still and 1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though a few, like 1956's Forbidden Planet, did involve deep space travel.

It was not until the tremendous box office success of Star Wars that space opera films again proved to be a viable film genre. George Lucas' 1977 space adventure film featured all of the trademarks of space operas: adventure, romance, fantasy, and space travel and warfare.

Unsurprisingly, the genre saw a massive increase in popularity after the success of Star Wars, as seemingly every studio sought to emulate its record-breaking box office success, with Star Wars imitators like Starcrash (1978), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), and Krull (1983) coming to cinemas worldwide. By the 1990s, space opera proved to be a popular genre in not only cinemas, but on television as well, with series like Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) and Babylon 5 (1993-1998). Other successful science fiction franchises like Star Trek have also embraced elements of space opera to great success.

Best Space Opera Movies

From the earliest space opera movies to the more recent releases, these are some of the top films in the genre.

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Flash Gordon Film Serials (1936, 1938, 1940)

Actors Jean Rogers and Buster Crabbe in a scene from the 1936 film serial 'Flash Gordon'
Jean Rogers holding onto Buster Crabbe in a scene from the film 'Flash Gordon', 1936.

Universal / Getty Images

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Buster Crabbe was cast as Flash Gordon after previously appearing as Tarzan in 1933's Tarzan the Fearless film serial.

Though Flash Gordon's comic strip was incredibly popular, Universal Pictures was concerned about the cost of the serial. In an attempt to cut down expenses, Universal reused many of the props, sets, and music from previous films to depict the deep space adventures of Gordon. The serial depicts Gordon battling the world-conquering Ming the Merciless.

Flash Gordon proved to be a huge success for Universal and inspired two film serial sequels: Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). A campier take on the character that was significantly influenced by the serials was released as a feature film by Universal in 1980.

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Buck Rogers (1939)

A poster for the 1939 film serial 'Buck Rogers'
Buster Crabbe in movie art for the film 'Buck Rogers', 1939.

Universal / Getty Images

Though a short Buck Rogers film screened at the 1934 World's Fair in Chicago, the first theatrically distributed adaptation of the adventures of the popular comic strip Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. was the 12-part 1939 film serial titled Buck Rogers, from Universal Pictures.

In an obvious attempt to follow the popularity of the Flash Gordon serials, Universal cast Buster Crabbe as Buck Rogers. In the serial, Rogers is a then current-day soldier who is accidentally put into suspended animation and awakens in the year 2440, when Earth has been conquered by an evil dictator. His adventures to save the planet involve Rogers traveling to Saturn.

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Barbarella (1968)

Image of actress Jane Fonda on the movie poster for the 1968 film 'Barbarella'
Actress Jane Fonda appears on an Italian poster for the 1968 science fiction fantasy film 'Barbarella', directed by Roger Vadim.

Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images

Though space opera films were largely out-of-fashion from the 1940s through the late 1970s, some popular movies did feature elements of the genre. Barbarella (1968) is probably most famous for Jane Fonda's revealing outfits, but the movie does feature Fonda as a futuristic astronaut who is tasked with stopping an evil scientist on a far-off planet. The film is an adaptation of the "adult" French comic book Barbarella, which features much more sexual content than depicted in the film.

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Star Wars (1977)

Actors Anthony Daniels, Alec Guinness, and Mark Hamill on the set of the 1977 film 'Star Wars'
British actors Anthony Daniels, Alec Guinness and American Mark Hamill on the set of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope written, directed and produced by Georges Lucas.

Sunset Boulevard / Getty Images

The Star Wars franchise needs little introduction to most audiences. In fact, it is the franchise that the term space opera is most closely identified with. In the original film, desert planet farmer Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) joins a wild adventure to save a princess from a galaxy-spanning empire and the evil Darth Vader. The massive popularity has led to sequels, prequels, and spin off films, and Star Wars has since spawned a multimedia franchise, including television series, comic books, novels, and theme park rides.

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The Fifth Element (1997)

Actor Bruce Willis in a scene from the 1997 film 'The Fifth Element'
1997, Bruce Willis stars in the movie "The Fifth Element".

Hulton Archives / Getty Images

The Fifth Element, co-written and directed by Luc Besson, depicts the adventure of a 23rd century taxicab driver who, by accident, finds himself partnered with a mysterious woman in a quest to gather four elemental stones to stop an impending attack on Earth. The film's colorful production design, unique soundtrack, and creative visuals helped make it a box office, hit and it has remained something of a cult classic.

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Actors Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and Chris Pratt in the 2014 film 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and Dave Bautista in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

Marvel Studios

Though Guardians of the Galaxy and its 2017 sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, are superhero movies within the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe, both films depict the adventures of a space-faring band of outsiders who come together to help save the galaxy. The team features characters like the enigmatic assassin Gamora, the tree-like Groot, and the outspoken Rocket, who resembles a racoon.

In part as a reference to the popularity of space opera movies in the 1970s, the films feature soundtracks of pop music largely from that decade. The two films were popular at the worldwide box office, grossing over $1.6 billion combined.