Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Warner, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Dolby Surround [CC], French Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, French, double side-single layer, 35 chapters, Theatrical Trailer, rated PG, 118 min., $19.99, street date 12/14/99.
Directed by Peter Weir. Starring Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, River Phoenix, Jadrien Steele, Hilary Gordon, Rebecca Gordon, Jason Alexander.
Allie Fox is fed up with an America that "buys junk, sells junk, eats junk." So with a mocking "Goodbye, America! Have a nice day," the brilliant inventor (nine patents, six pending) leads his trusting wife and four children into the remote jungles of Central America to carve out a new society.
After teaming up on Witness, Harrison Ford and director Peter Weir reunite for this adventure about utopia gone haywire. A movie icon for Star Wars' Han Solo and Indiana Jones, Ford here explores the dark side of heroism - and creates a spellbinding character from the pages of Paul Theroux's bestseller. Helen Mirren, Martha Plimpton and the late River Phoenix co-star.
Has this ever happened to you? You watch a movie, enjoy it reasonably well, but years pass before you decide to view it again. At that point, you see the film and feel disappointed; it turns out that your old impressions were mistaken, and your older, more mature self isn't quite as entertained.
This scenario seemed possible as I watched 1986's The Mosquito Coast for the first time in something like 12 or 13 years. When I saw it on video in the late Eighties, I found it to be a compelling and surprising drama. But I was a mere child of roughly 20 back then; what would I think at 33?
About the same, really. I may have aged, but TMC stands up quite well and offers a very unconventional look at a man who could be seen as brilliant and heroic under some circumstances.
None of those circumstances occur during the film, however, which is what makes it different, especially considering the casting of Harrison Ford in the lead role of Allie Fox. Allie is a very smart inventor who has grown increasingly disgusted with the path he sees as being taken by Americans; to him, it's all about greed and materialism. America is rapidly heading into the toilet, and he seems sure that a nuclear war will flush it.
At this point, Allie resembles nothing more than a very intelligent version of the sort of person who operates in militias; he has a deep distrust for and dissatisfaction with the direction of the US and he believes he knows the way things should be. Rather than take up arms against the government, however, Allie decides to get out while the getting's good, since he seems to feel a continued downward spiral is unstoppable in the US. As such, he decides to move his family to a remote location in Central America where they can start their own lives from the ground up.
Things start promisingly and the Foxes - including his wife (played be Helen Mirren and only called "Mother") and four kids - build a rather fantastic little village fashioned with the help of the locals. Allie's ego eventually gets the better of him, unfortunately, and although he openly disdains missionaries, he starts his own crusade when he creates "Fat Boy", a remarkable house-sized device that creates ice from heat; Allie wants to spread his own scientific religion to the natives and seeks out isolated tribes with the wonders of his ice.
While I'll leave the particulars unspecified, that's where the story takes a more negative turn and the Foxes lose their little jungle paradise. The rest of the film essentially documents Allie's descent into madness, as he refuses to acknowledge the severity of the situation and continues to insist that the family will survive and prosper in the increasingly inhospitable surroundings.
From the first shots of a little tug winding upstream, TMC inevitably spawns comparisons to Apocalypse Now, another story that depicted a destructive quest. One difference is that in the case of AN's Kurtz, he really did seem to be mad and his issues indirectly caused the destruction of others.
That's not quite the same as what we see in TMC. I think Allie is doomed because of his arrogance and his ego. We've all met folks at least partially similar to Allie in that they seem absolutely convinced that they - and they alone - possess the keys to "the way things should be" and have single-minded determination to bring their ideas to fruition. As with Allie, no amount of argument or evidence that proves anything contrary can ever sway them. (Never met anyone like that? Visit some newsgroups and you'll find plenty of monomaniacal people!)
I don't see Allie as going insane; I think that his self-righteousness consumes him. He is so completely unable to recognize his mistakes and to admit any flaws that it ends up harming his family. In a broad way, he's Ahab after his white whale.
Ford seemed like a surprising choice for the role even back in 1986, and the part seems even more atypical for him now, after years of stoic heroes. Allie isn't your usual bad guy, and as I noted earlier, he easily could have been fit into the role of hero had the part been given a slightly different twist. Credit goes to Ford for playing him as he does, with a vicious gusto that makes Allie unsympathetic for the most part but strangely real; Allie's zeal should make him seem over-the-top and unbelievable, but it has the opposite effect and makes the role appear frighteningly true. This is easily some of Ford's best acting.
The rest of the cast seem good but they're largely overshadowed by the strength of Ford's performance. Mirren has little to do as Mother and she generally seems stuck in the background. I would have liked to see more indication why she's so attracted to this nutbag (other than the physical reasons, of course); yes, we understand that Allie's a genius, but we get little indication that Mother agrees with his beliefs or is along for anything more than the ride. Mirren is a strong actress but she seems underused in this part.
That also applies to the kids as well. River Phoenix gets the main child role as son Charlie, and he's fine, though again the role seems underwritten and vague. Charlie acts as the narrator but we get little insight into the character and his thoughts while all this absurdity occurs. Charlie seems against it, but the character is almost as passive as Mother so little happens with his ideas.
None of this really matters ultimately because it's all Allie's show. To be frank, the other characters are so much window-dressing and are necessary just to frame the limits of his actions. While this makes the film flawed, it doesn't diminish the impact felt from The Mosquito Coast. I won't call it a classic but it's definitely a very strong piece that still works powerfully.
The Mosquito Coast appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen version was reviewed for this article. While not flawless, the movie offers a generally terrific viewing experience.
Sharpness seemed consistently strong, with crisp and clear images that only rarely betrayed any softness. This definition largely came without any resulting moiré effects or jagged edges; the one extremely notable exception comes when we see Martha Plimpton in a striped shirt that strobes like crazy. The print itself seems relatively clean; I noticed a vaguely gritty look on occasion, and some speckles pop up periodically, but for the most part it appears largely free of defects.
Colors looked absolutely wonderful throughout this movie. TMC displays a widely varied palette, and the DVD reproduces these tones terrifically well, with some vivid and bright colors combined with lushly deep and rich hues. Black levels also seem dark and solid throughout the film, and shadow detail appeared appropriately opaque but not overly thick. Ultimately, TMC looks quite good; only a few niggling flaws knock it down to "B+" level.
Although I expected little of the film's Dolby Surround 2.0 audio, I found it to offer a pleasant surprise. The soundfield seems strongly concentrated in the front channels, but it spreads nicely across the front three speakers for much of the movie. Indeed, I found some of its effects to seem very well-spaced; for example, both a motorboat's engines and the innards of "Fat Boy" sputtered and popped effectively from the forward field. The rears weren't utilized extensively - for the most part they just quietly reinforced the front channels - but at times the surrounds kicked in nicely, such as during a nasty storm toward the end of the film.
Quality seemed generally good but unspectacular. Dialogue appeared relatively warm and natural, though it occasionally sounded somewhat flat and periodically betrayed some slight distortion. The film's score doesn't appear frequently, but when it does it appeared clear and bright, with some decent dynamic range. Effects were the best part of the mix, as they sounded bold and bright with little evident distortion; these parts of the track were clearly its sonic highlights. All in all, TMC really sounds quite good for a relatively old film and I found the audio to be very satisfying.
Less positive are the DVD's extras. We get the movie's original theatrical trailer and that's it. I recognize that TMC appears as part of Warner Bros.' "midprice" line, which means it lists for about $20, but since other entries in this category have featured a few supplements, there's no reason this one couldn't as well. I really would have liked to learn more about the shoot, as I presume it may have been arduous.
Despite that omission, The Mosquito Coast makes for a compelling DVD. The movie itself seems unusual and provocative, and the DVD provides very strong picture and sound, although it skimps on extras. Nonetheless, TMC definitely merits a rental, and considering the disc's low list price, it may be worth adding to your permanent collection.
Current as of 6/9/2000
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