How Bobby Fischer Served As Inspiration For Oscar Isaac's Ex Machina Performance

Now that Elon Musk has successfully bought Twitter, it seems like a great time to talk about the trope of the "genius" tech bro, and what better way to do that than to discuss director Alex Garland's psychologically thrilling A.I. movie "Ex Machina"? This 2014 hit tells the story of Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer who wins a competition to spend a week living alongside tech genius Nathan Bateman (Moon Knight ... I mean, Oscar Isaac). Nathan lives a secluded life in a totally bougie home, completely isolating himself — and Caleb — from the outside world.

When Nathan asks Caleb to spend some time with an A.I. he has created — he wants to see if she truly can pass the Turing Test — Nathan obliges, only to find that Ava (Alicia Vikander) is far more intelligent and enticing than he had anticipated. Over the course of a series of conversations together, Nathan begins to inexplicably fall in love with Ava, promising to help her escape from the small room Nathan keeps her in. Of course, nothing is as it seems and eventually, all hell breaks loose. But the film's true glory lies in its depiction of its three very distinct main characters.

Nathan is one of these characters, so self-assured and brilliant that you find yourself hanging on every one of his words. He talks like a tech bro, bro. He calls Caleb "dude" and is probably a little too sex-obsessed and casual about it to be trustworthy around women, even artificial ones. He is very aware of his genius, and he is not afraid to make sure you know it. In one particularly delightful scene, he and his A.I. servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) put on a dance performance worthy of a slot on "Dancing With the Stars." So just where did Oscar Isaac get inspiration for Nathan's personality? Well, it turns out it isn't just based on other tech bros, but rather the unlikely influence of chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer.  

Bobby who?

Perhaps you've heard of him because of Netflix's "The Queen's Gambit," or maybe you grew up as obsessed with the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer" as I did. Either way, Fischer is well known for being a chess grandmaster, the highest title a person can earn in the intellectual sport of chess. Born in Chicago, Illinois, Fischer went on to become a chess prodigy by the age of fourteen, and he eventually became the eleventh world chess champion. His chess playing has attracted many admirers over the years, but aside from his brilliance as a chess player, Fischer was also a bit of a recluse and often extremely vocal about his anti-Semitic views. In other words, let's not try to glorify the man too much, here. 

His reliance on his genius, however, was deeply inspiring to Isaac when coming up with the version of Nathan that we see on screen. In an interview with Esquire, Isaac describes Nathan, saying, "There's an aspect to him that's street. So I looked for that, and also something dark and misanthropic." These traits led him to Fischer who's "from the Bronx, self-taught, [and] he's a chess genius," says Isaac, going on to describe how Fischer also enlisted the help of an Olympic trainer when he was "preparing for his chess battles." This reliance on exercise is something the character Nathan shares with the chess prodigy, a detail of Nathan's character meant to highlight his dedication to strength and vitality.

It's not hard to see how Isaac was able to draw a line between a chess grandmaster and a genius Silicon Valley techie. Both men, fictional or not, clearly possess an intelligence worthy of attention, but they also possess a darkness within them that distorts their genius and pushes their legacies into questionable territory. Just like we are both attracted to and suspicious of Ava and her supreme intelligence, Nathan — and the real-life chess master who partially inspired him — is as complex as trying to play chess by looking five moves ahead.