The Mosquito Coast premieres on Apple TV+ April 30th
Apple TV is still finding its feet in the global and busy landscape of online streaming services; its platform still thin when compared to Netflix and Amazon Prime. However, one thing is evident in the Apple TV mission; quality over quantity. From its inception, Apple TV originals have embraced excellence, allowing filmmakers the space to create unique, engaging and different TV and film journeys. The Mosquito Coast firmly continues on this path, its creativity laced with a genre-defying atmosphere. Here, Neil Cross and Paul Theroux take us from thriller to family drama and high octane action in a sweeping seven-episode run that is merely a taster of what is to come. However, for those expecting a dutiful adaptation of the Paul Theroux novel, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the TV series steers a different path.
For many adults of my generation, the Paul Theroux book will forever be linked to Peter Weirs underrated 1986 movie. Bringing together a truly stunning cast in Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton with a broadly dutiful adaptation of the source material. However, for many critics of the time, Ford’s Allie Fox was problematic. Roger Ebert stating, “It is painful to watch him (Ford) not because he is mad, but because he is boring – one of those nuts who will talk all night long without even checking to see if you’re listening”. In hindsight, this critique would seem to be fatally flawed. After all, the character of Allie Fox is embedded in the notion of mania, paranoia and belief. His actions based on an internal struggle that goes far beyond a simple label of madness.
Meanwhile, the film beautifully highlighted the struggle of Allie’s family in supporting and challenging his insular beliefs. Teenage Charlie (River Phoenix) admiring his father’s talent and drive while knowing family disaster is but a stone’s throw away. Within the framework of the TV adaptation, Charlie’s role in questioning his father sits with Gabriel Bateman, his role in the narrative arc of the TV show shared equally with older sister Dina (Logan Polish). Meanwhile, the manic paranoia and brilliance of Allie find a new voice in Justin Theroux. His character’s journey, radically different from that of Ford’s 34 years ago. Here, Neil Cross and Paul Theroux use the TV landscape as a prequel, fleshing out the Fox family story and ultimately changing the course of the novel.
Now, I am aware that this will prove problematic for many, but in my opinion, it’s a stroke of sheer genius. But more than that, it links the TV adaptation to another River Phoenix classic, Running on Empty. The Fox families past laced with a secret history known only by the FBI, Allie and Margot (Melissa George). Their children kept in the dark as the family move from town to town, evading detection. This premise enables Allie’s behaviour to find differing levels of audience empathy. His beliefs tied to social justice and progression while keeping his own family isolated and disconnected.
Meanwhile, the new narrative arc also helps Margot’s character to grow and develop as she protects both her kids and husband with every decision. While at the same time constantly questioning her actions and motivations both internally and externally. The families dangerous and riveting escape from the USA linked to their discovery by federal officers. The past haunting the present as they run, knowing they can no longer hide.
In taking this direction, The Mosquito Coast layers elements of Swiss Family Robinson with Running on Empty while at the same time echoing the social complexity of Breaking Bad. The families security not only threatened by potential discovery but the need to stay hidden at all costs. The audience only allowed to take a breath once the final episode comes to an end. The concepts of the novel, its characters and its journey retained while finding a new distinct voice. That does not mean there are not several minor flaws in the Fox family journey, with some scenes lacking the tension needed to elevate The Mosquito Coast to a truly outstanding drama. But, where it occasionally lacks atmosphere, it glows with engaging performances, assured direction and visual beauty. The resulting seven-episode run both addictive, enthralling and creative.