Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews The Mosquito Coast, an Apple TV+ adaptation of an award-winning adventure novel.
The world has changed significantly since Paul Theroux’s award-winning adventure novel The Mosquito Coast hit shelves in 1981, and the same goes for Peter Weir’s film adaptation starring Harrison Ford released five years later. Fortunately, the latest telling of the story — a limited series streaming on Apple TV+ based on the book — has also been changed significantly to fit the times. One thing hasn’t changed, however. The lead character’s guiding force is still a deep-seated disgust with American consumerism.
Developed by Luther creator Neil Cross and journalist Tom Bissell, the new adaptation follows Allie Fox (Justin Theroux), a man manically committed to a life off the grid. He takes his son Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) on day trips to siphon used cooking grease that can be turned into biofuel, calling it the homeschool version of a PE class. He rushes into the room of his teenage daughter Dina (Logan Polish) to wrestle a secret cell phone out of her hands. He’s not simply an intense environmentalist. There’s another, shadier reason he wants his family out of the government’s crosshairs.
By the end of the first episode of The Mosquito Coast, Allie has uprooted his family, including the two kids and wife Margot (Melissa George). He insists they’re going on an adventure, even as they head toward Mexico with a pair of what seem to be US officials in pursuit. On the surface, it’s the story of an idealistic environmentalist leading his family to a new land, but as the Foxes travel deeper into unfamiliar territory, the series sets up culturally complicated moments that chafe against its simplified initial characterizations.
Allie might be an idealist, but he’s also a pushy and purposely unlikeable character — almost everyone he meets calls him an asshole. And his proclaimed views often directly contradict his actions. In fact, the first few episodes of the series are forceful and forced, overflowing with edgy, apolitical speeches about American corruption and waste. But they’re also action-packed, so it’s easy for viewers to sail through the tightly plotted series until it evolves from a straight-faced drama into something of a wryly ironic allegory. By the end, those preachy early monologues will seem like a part of the show’s design.
The Mosquito Coast is well-directed and relentless, packed with arresting visuals and enough action to keep viewers engaged despite some early missteps. The Foxes’ trip is endlessly dangerous and increasingly grim, even as Allie continues to treat it as an educational family vacation. The series may not have the lightest narrative touch, but it’s an adventure show filled with all sorts of obstacles for the family to deal with, ranging from wild snakes to mummified bodies to desert shootouts.
Balancing between a savvily self-aware allegory and a misguided piece of cultural commentary, The Mosquito Coast toes a lot of lines. Much of the plot is set in and around a version of Mexico where cartel associates lord over opulent mansions and where dirt-covered street kids will sell anyone out for scraps. These are tired cultural tropes, but they also might be a fitting backdrop for a story about modern American hypocrisy and self-centeredness. Early in their journey, the Foxes take water and weapons from the corpses of migrants, and that bleak moment sets the tone for a series about a group of people that, despite their self-proclaimed distaste for capitalism, can’t stop taking what they think they’re owed.
As the series gets into a groove, its thematic originality is tempered by a familiar family dynamic. At times, The Mosquito Coast seems like a clone of Netflix’s Ozark, complete with an eye-rolling older daughter and a quietly messed-up younger son. Depending on what the scene calls for, Margot is either a self-sacrificing mother who dreams of normalcy above all else or the mastermind behind every dangerous decision. Allie is all boundary-pushing attitude, and Theroux plays him with a wide-eyed intensity that perfectly matches his unpleasant personality.
Fans of the novel or the 1986 film adaptation will find a scant resemblance between those versions and this one. Vitally, the Foxes’ central catalyst has changed — the series continually references something one or both parents did in the past that motivated them to hide from the government, though the details of those circumstances are only ever half-explained. The new impulse is all about family, which makes the havoc the Foxes wreak along their journey, and that blistering ending — also changed from the book — more personal and less sociopolitical.
The Mosquito Coast is not without problems, among them a muddled backstory and a tendency to rely on overused cultural cliches. Yet taken as a whole, the show does something undoubtedly bold, infusing a fast-moving action-adventure story with the type of layered, capitalist-critical commentary that’s rarely explored to this degree.