James Bond’s Influence on the Films of Christopher Nolan

Tenet, director Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited (and thrice-delayed) eleventh film, will finally open in the United States on September 3rd, with early access screenings beginning on August 31st in select theaters.  The first reviews appeared online last week, and although they were not all favorable, many critics agreed that the time-bending espionage thriller is very reminiscent of another blockbuster spy series:  the James Bond franchise.  Variety declared it “the fanciest James Bond romp you ever did see,” and The Wrap stated that its exotic locations, thrilling chase scenes, and jaw-dropping stunts pay “direct homage to the James Bond series.”

It’s no secret that Nolan is a big fan of the Bond films, and rumors have swirled for nearly a decade that he might direct an installment of the iconic spy franchise.  Whether or not he will ever be offered the Bond director gig remains to be seen, but as the Tenet reviews remind us, we don’t really have to imagine what a Nolan-helmed Bond film would look or feel like.  It’s right there in front of us, in many of his movies.  Sure, he might shake and stir the familiar formula to produce his own ambitious cinematic visions, but 007’s influence is still easily identifiable throughout Nolan’s filmography.

Before Tenet, 2010’s Inception was the Nolan film that most proudly exhibited its Bond influences.  The stylish costuming, globetrotting plot, and large-scale action scenes certainly mimic the Bond formula—minus the sci-fi dream heist elements, of course.  In a 2010 interview for Empire, the director made it clear that this mimicry is intentional.  “[Inception] is absolutely my Bond movie,” Nolan stated.  “I’ve been plundering ruthlessly from the Bond movies in everything I’ve done, forever. I grew up just loving them and they’re a huge influence on me.”  His “plundering” of the Bond franchise has resulted in some of the most breathtaking action scenes of the past fifteen years.

LEFT: The Snow Fortress in Inception. RIGHT: Piz Gloria, Blofeld’s Alpine hideout in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

In the Empire interview, Nolan cited On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) as his personal favorite Bond film.  It’s a favorite of mine as well, apparently for the same reasons that Nolan enjoys it.  “What I liked about it,” he stated in the interview, “is there’s a tremendous balance in that movie of action and scale and romanticism and tragedy and emotion.  Of all the Bond films, it’s by far the most emotional.”  Of course, the director’s films have repeatedly been criticized for their lack of emotional depth, but other elements of OHMSS’s plot are definitely echoed in Inception’s third act.  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service takes place largely at the Alpine mountaintop hideout of Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Inception’s climactic final set piece, meanwhile, takes place partially at a snowy fortress dreamed up (literally) by Tom Hardy’s character Eames.  The visual similarities are immediately obvious, Eames’ ski chase resembles Blofeld’s snowy pursuit of Bond, and fans will surely recognize that the destruction of the fortress in Inception mirrors the blowing up of Blofeld’s lair in OHMSS.

Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy infused the comic book mythology of Batman with gritty realism and plausible gadgetry and technology, and some of the Caped Crusader’s gadgets were inspired by Bond.  Morgan Freeman, as Lucius Fox, is equivalent to the character of Q in the Bond films.  Just as Q provides Bond with souped-up Aston Martins, Fox introduces Bruce Wayne to the military prototype vehicle known as the “Tumbler.”  After a quick paint job, it becomes the Batmobile.  One of the Dark Knight trilogy’s most direct references to the Bond series is the “skyhook,” used to exfiltrate the corrupt accountant Lau (Ng Chin Han) from an upper floor of a Hong Kong skyscraper.  The skyhook device was derived from the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system developed by the CIA in the 1950s, and it was previously featured in the final scene of the 1965 Bond film Thunderball.

LEFT: Bane hijacks a plane in The Dark Knight Rises. RIGHT: The pre-titles sequence in Licence to Kill.

The opening scene of The Dark Knight Rises pays homage to another spectacular Bond stunt:  the plane heist in 1989’s Licence to Kill.  In the pre-titles sequence of Timothy Dalton’s second Bond outing, he is lowered out of a Coast Guard helicopter onto the villain’s Cessna 172 airplane, where he attaches a cable to the tail.  The helicopter then yanks the cable upwards, dipping the nose of the plane and foiling the villain’s escape attempt.  In The Dark Knight Rises, several henchmen do essentially the same thing to a CIA aircraft to rescue their boss, the villainous Bane (Tom Hardy once again).  As we have seen over and over again, Nolan recreated a classic Bond moment, only much bigger.

LEFT: John David Washington and Elizabeth Debicki in Tenet. RIGHT: Sean Connery and Daniela Bianchi in From Russia with Love.

With the arrival of Tenet, it seems that Nolan has not only returned to dip his toes into the Bond ocean, but that he has dived right in, offering up plenty of visual references to examine and reflect upon, even in the trailers.  In the final trailer, released on Friday, we see John David Washington’s character fight bad guys in a kitchen like Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace, hitch a ride on a fire engine like Roger Moore in A View to a Kill, and steer a speedboat through an exotic locale like Sean Connery in From Russia with Love.  This can’t be a coincidence.  Nolan is borrowing heavily from a film series that he loves, repackaging these familiar images into something new, thrilling, and probably a bit confusing.  Will it work?  As a Bond fan and a Christopher Nolan fan, I sure hope so.  COVID-19 will keep me from watching it in IMAX as Nolan intended, but I’m excited to check out Tenet at a drive-in theater once it premieres next week, and I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for more 007 homages.

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