The below features our first thoughts on The Mosquito Coast. Weekly reviews will follow.
When Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast was released in 1981, the novel was positioned as a “Yankee Crusoe” with a dash of Swiss Family Robinson and Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. Four years after landing on bestseller lists, Harrison Ford’s turn as inventor Allie Fox in Peter Weir’s movie adaptation showed him playing against charming rogue type as a man who rejects America and all it stands for. Rather than finding a utopian existence in Central America, Allie’s increasingly angry and arrogant conduct is a cautionary tale that leads to colonizing behavior. With a Cold War backdrop, the choice to uproot his wife and four children are informed by his oversized ego and potential nuclear war. Unlike Weir’s relatively faithful depiction, the novel is a jumping-off point for the new Apple TV+ miniseries that deviates heavily from Theroux’s story while still addressing consumerism, American exceptionalism, and the price of blind confidence.
Justin Theroux takes on the disgruntled inventor mantle — yes, he is nephew to author Paul — and rather than organically leaving the United States, a mysterious criminal past is a catalyst behind this exodus. From the off, this is a cat-and-mouse game between the authorities (in this case the NSA) and the Fox family, which is the main source of tension as bigger life-or-death challenges present themselves during this flight for freedom. “Everything’s complicated, but there is always a solution,” intones Allie in the second episode and his apparent genius is both a savior and a curse. Being able to fashion devices out of scraps is useful but he is also blind to his foibles that not only risk the Fox family but anyone who strays into their path. The latter is a problem because while Allie’s hypocrisy is never shied away from, we are ultimately on this journey with the Foxes, and the figures pulled into this precarious web serve a function that makes them disposable. There are plenty of anti-heroes and (for want of a better word) assholes that audiences can get behind, but Allie does push it to the limits with his recognizable brand of self-belief and radical idealism. He thinks he is the better man but really he is a mirror image of everything he rails against.
Diatribes he has clearly uttered many times about how poorly the United States treats citizens followed by his own disregard for others makes him a difficult figure to cheer on. Some of this purposeful, but at times it isn’t clear how much we are meant to oppose the protagonist. Theroux, who proved his dramatic cred in his stunning turn as Kevin Garvey in The Leftovers is charming and sells the holier-than-thou aspects of this character without missing a beat. A flash of his pearly white smile and the patience he has tested does melt away somewhat, but there is only so much he can get away with before wondering if punchy NSA agent is right about her pointed assessment. His most interesting moments are with his teenage daughter Dina (Logan Polish), however, The Mosquito Coast falls into some of the adolescent character issues that dogged 24 and Homeland. It is hard to depict teens who push back without succumbing to the annoying trope — even Paige in The Americans had her moments. One smart choice is reducing the Fox brood from four children down to two that serves to streamline their narrative (and reduces filming issues with restrictions on younger performers).
If Dina bristles at some of the plans, her younger brother Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) is the more naive and trusting of the pair. Aligned with his father’s beliefs, he is less inquisitive about what his parents have done to cause this fugitive status. Rounding out the family is Melissa George as Margot, who thankfully, gets a name unlike “Mother” in the novel (played by Helen Mirren in the 1986 movie). Another alteration is her active role in the overall plot, even if her motivation isn’t particularly clear and this character still requires more shading. Withholding information from the kids (and us) is a stalling tactic that reads as unnecessarily contrived in places. The balance between revealing too much and spinning your wheels is a tough one that Neil Cross’s adaptation doesn't quite master. Where this story comes alive is during hold-your-breath sequences in which the odds are stacked against them and flashes of the couples’ past shine through.
The enormity of their trip to Mexico is enhanced by director Rupert Wyatt setting the visual tone in the first two episodes with grand sweeping shots of the dangerous (and beautiful terrain). Animal symbolism is a repeated motif and creator Cross leans into the metaphors — some are more effective than others. Shot on location in Mexico, production was halted last spring, but other than graffiti, there is nothing about the real-world pandemic that has seeped into the mise-en-scène. Climate change and immigration are threads that reflect the issues that were pressing when this series began shooting — and still are in 2021. While Allie’s desire to escape society could be considered pure fantasy, this past year has put isolation and survival into effect. It is impossible not to view this through our current lens and the desire to go off the grid rather than engage with society hits a little different now. Part of the pushback Allie faces is from Dina who has a different vision for her future that exists outside the Fox bubble. And while the teenager makes some bad decisions at nearly every turn, it is hard not to sympathize with the youth who has no control over her fate.
It might be considered rather ironic that a series exploring consumption is on a platform like Apple TV+ and this feels akin to The Boys on Amazon Prime taking aim at conglomerates and capitalism. Unlike other contemporary shows on this streaming service that feature almost exclusively Apple products, the computers and cell phones in this series do not bear the familiar fruit logo. Sure, Allie is anti any tech that might give up their location but there is also a feeling they maybe they don’t want a MacBook with a dark web page appearing on it.
Allie promises a great adventure and The Mosquito Coast lives up to this pledge with a few bumps along the way that we will get into more detail in the weekly reviews. This is a beautifully constructed drama with strong performances that bolster the action. But in matching Allie’s radical idealism outlook, there are flaws that cannot be ignored in this depiction of a twisted American Dream.
The first two episodes of The Mosquito Coast will debut on Apple TV+ on Friday, April 30.
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Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.