Apple TV’s ‘The Mosquito Coast’ Updates the Acclaimed Novel Into a Visually Stunning yet Overlong Journey
In many ways it makes perfect sense to revive “The Mosquito Coast.” It is a story about a man who feels detached from an increasingly material, consumerist society, zealously determined to build something better somewhere else. Like many zealots he drags others along with him, in the case of Allie Fox, it’s his family. The original novel by Paul Theroux was published in 1982, just as the revolutionary passions of the ‘60s were going through a final, at times tragic, wave. Peter Weir directed the 1986 movie adaptation with Harrison Ford brilliantly playing Fox. These are days of paranoia and economic uncertainty, so an updated Allie Fox would feel at home in 2021. Apple TV’s new take on “The Mosquito Coast” expands the material into a 7-part limited series that can feel like an actual road trip, where intriguing moments sometimes give way to meandering pit stops.
Now set in the present, Fox is played by Justin Theroux (who happens to be the nephew of Paul Theroux) as a freelancing handyman in California’s Central Valley. A firm anti-consumerist, if not anti-modernist, Fox lives an austere life with wife Margot (Melissa George) and kids Dina (Logan Polish) and Charlie (Gabriel Bateman). He forbids them from watching TV, using iPhones or playing video games. Dina has to secretly sneak in a device to make contact with her potential boyfriend, who she can barely see since her and Charlie are homeschooled. Fox is a brilliant inventor who can’t convince anyone to buy into a device he has designed that can produce ice from fire. Suddenly it all turns upside down when Fox and Margot realize the feds are on their tail. The couple is still wanted for an unknown crime from years ago. They hastily force Dina and Charlie to pack up and go on the run, their main destination being Mexico. Out there Fox hopes to build a new home, use his ice-making device and say goodbye to the hassles of American civilization. But it will be a hard journey since the family must first make it across the border and evade violent drug cartels.
This new “The Mosquito Coast” is developed by Neil Cross, a writer from “Luther.” It adds more action and suspense to the narrative while losing what made the original story intriguing. Cross’s take is a version for a post-idealist era. In the Weir version, scripted by the great Paul Schrader, Fox is not a fugitive sought by the FBI, but a hyper intelligent man consumed by his own, self-inflicted paranoia. His mind affected by Cold War fears, he is convinced nuclear war is coming to collapse the capitalist world. The reason he leaves with his family to the Mosquito Coast is to build a communal utopia, which was common at the time with so many groups. Harrison Ford played Fox like the hippies entering middle age in the ‘80s, many holding on to their ideals somehow. At the time it was common for some to trek down to Central America to live out their political hopes among the Sandinistas or Salvadoran rebels. Justin Theroux’s Fox is more of a brainy adventurist, and Margot, who was played as a caring but hesitant participant by Helen Mirren in the ’86 movie, is practically Bonnie to his Clyde. The series takes forever to explain why they’re even on the run. You will not get an answer even in the first three episodes, each running an hour.
As a production “The Mosquito Coast” is excellent in its look and visuals. Several directors are on hand here and they keep a consistent, widescreen look. California’s agricultural fields, where Fox makes friends among Latino migrants, look sweeping. Other scenes, like a vast junkyard where the Foxes meet a coyote who can get them across the border, have a post-industrial dystopian look. On a superficial level we get some strong suspense when the family has to cross the Arizona desert into Mexico, led by a Smiths-loving coyote named Chuy (well played by Scotty Tovar). During these moments the series comes close to making some kind of dramatic commentary on our modern America, as when Chuy and Fox confront a band of right-wing militia. But just when something provocative comes to the fore, it’s used for a standard action/thriller shootout. It’s the same when the family finally reaches Mexico in episode four. The more engaging ideas of the novel and original movie take a backseat to cartel violence and plot twists.
Our ongoing era of Peak TV has developed a trend of taking stories that worked fine as movies and trying to find any way to outstretch them. As a contained story about a smart but zealous man “The Mosquito Coast” has much promise, but by elongating it into a traditional thriller plot, the series loses edge. It doesn’t have the political force of a film like “Running on Empty,” about a married radical couple forcing their kids on the run to evade the FBI because of a bombing they carried out in the ‘60s. Instead we’re left wondering why we should care so much about the Foxes. Justin Theroux, a great actor who was so engaging in HBO’s “The Leftovers,” turns Fox into a man more clueless than radical. He doesn’t seem to care for what he’s putting his family through, like a mere crook just trying to get away from the cops. His complaints about consumerism sound like what your average woke American thinks these days, with not much of a hint of real danger. And the series takes so long to even tell us why the Foxes are wanted or to get to the fabled Mosquito Coast that the ship begins to lose steam at the half-way point.
There are good performances in “The Mosquito Coast” and visually it’s a stunning piece of TV. Its key fault is in feeling too timid with the material. The narrative is about a radical, yet it takes few chances, including when it delivers villains that are your average Mexican stereotypes. Theroux’s novel and the Weir film are a journey into the American heart of darkness. An updated version could have used the theme of QAnon and other forms of paranoia driving individuals to extreme behavior. Apple TV’s version is fine as a distraction or entertainment to be watched here and there in parts. Yet it tries too hard to keep us watching by not saying much, or saving important information until the very end. The final chapter lacks pathos as well, leaving open the question if the characters even learned anything. One great value here is that the story is still intriguing enough to where after the end credits you might just be enticed to seek the novel.
“The Mosquito Coast” begins streaming April 30 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Apple TV+.