Author and professional traveler Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast continues to cast a long shadow. The book took home a number of prestigious awards and has been in near-constant publication for 40 years. In 1986 Australian New Wave director Peter Weir adapted it into a feature film starring Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren and River Phoenix. Despite its cautionary moral, it remains a sort of aspirational bible among counterculture types dreaming of ditching civilization and heading for the hills (or the jungles, as the case may be).
Now Apple TV+, always on the lookout for a prestige project to garner some attention from would-be subscribers or Emmy voters, is tackling a high-profile “modern” update of the dark adventure yarn. British novelist and scriptwriter Neil Cross (best known as the creator of psychological cop drama “Luther”) is the show’s co-creator/developer, alongside American journalist/writer Tom Bissell (The Disaster Artist). The feather in the cap of the show is the clever fact that the main character is now played by actor Justin Theroux—who, yes, just happens to be Paul Theroux’s nephew.
The pilot episode, stylishly directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), introduces us to our thorny protagonist, Allie Fox. Fox is an idealistic but disillusioned inventor, husband and father of two, who’s perpetually on the verge of dropping out of civilization entirely. The only thing keeping him clinging to life in southern California is the potential of his latest invention, a fantastical contraption that turns “fire into ice.” Sure, the Fox family lives as off-the-grid as possible, going so far as to liberate grease from area fast food joints to power their biodiesel vehicle. Phones, televisions and other modern-day trappings are forbidden in the Fox household. The kids are home schooled. But dad’s still hoping his latest brainchild will cause someone to finally recognize his hidden genius. When Allie’s boss at a corporate farm dismisses the idea, however, the demagogue dad decides he’s had his fill of late-stage capitalist society. He’s going to gather up the family and flee the United States for good. Of course, this sudden road trip might also be motivated by the fact that Allie is seeing mysterious men in black stalking him at every turn. Is he just paranoid, or has he committed some grievous government/corporate sin in the past that is finally catching up with him? For the sake of storytelling, it’s certainly the latter.
Unlike the book and movie, which more or less reflected on the perpetually aggrieved Allie from the perspective of his mildly traumatized son, this “Mosquito Coast” plays more like a broad family drama. Conflict is now spread among impulsive dad Allie (Justin Theroux, from HBO’s “The Leftovers”), disapproving wife Margot (Melissa George from HBO’s “In Treatment”), worshipful young son Charlie (Gabriel Bateman from the 2019 remake of Child’s Play) and rebellious teenage daughter Dina (Logan Polish from The Astronaut Farmer). Of course, in this situation, “rebellious” means “perfectly normal.” While dad is dodging shadowy government agents and ranting against consumerism, Dina is hiding a cell phone from her parents so she can chat with her boyfriend on the sly. It’s a major change from the novel and film, which featured two sons.
The far bigger change to the source material is the fact that the titular location remains exiled to the far horizon. The Mosquito Coast had something of a Heart of Darkness feel with Mr. Fox dragging his family off to the South American jungle in search of some elusive primitive paradise and eventually contributing to the downfall of everyone around him with his increasingly dictatorial behavior. “The Mosquito Coast,” in comparison, plays out like a modern-day serialized crime drama. Almost the whole of the first season is taken up with Allie’s frantic quest to extricate his family from the United States, while remaining under the radar of the various villainous types trying to catch up with them. It’s as if Walter White had herded his entire family into that motor home and forced them to go into hiding in the pilot episode of “Breaking Bad.” Or if the Malloy clan from “The Riches” were a bunch of freegan hippies instead of Irish con men. Or if Jason Jones’ on-the-run patriarch from “The Detour” were a high-tech genius instead of a well-meaning idiot.
The makers of “The Mosquito Coast” have transformed it from a story of a destination to the story of a journey. Over the course of its first season, the show finds some intriguing imagery—like Allie and family sneaking across the border into Mexico in a timely “reverse” immigration situation. The show throws up plenty of roadblocks—including armed militiamen, cartoonish assassins and assorted Mexican cartel members. In the initial episodes (those directed by Wyatt), there’s at least an intensity to the action and the paranoia. But viewers may begin to wonder when the hell these people are actually going to get to a coast, Mosquito or otherwise. Dragging out the premise undercuts much of the original man v. nature/man v. himself plot. It also gives viewers more time to contemplate the uncomfortable idea of a telegenic Caucasian family fleeing to third-world freedom. Even though they’re portrayed as “poor” and marginalized, the Fox’s are clearly more educated, well-to-do and privileged than any of the brown people they’re encountering on their expedition. Our protagonists are quickly plucked from one crisis, only to be deposited in another, largely unscathed and unenlightened. (Not unlike early seasons of “the Amazing Race.”) There’s some decent, self-conscious writing to be found here. (For a show from Apple, it’s awfully anti-capitalist.) But some viewers may find themselves debating the wisdom of this family’s neo-colonial quest for “paradise” among people who don’t have the privilege of seeing names in the opening credits.
Season 1 of “The Mosquito Coast” is streaming now on Apple TV+