By Horus Alas
“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage… ”
Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) narrates these devil-may-care meditations at the beginning of Trainspotting as the exuberant drums of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” begin pounding. We see Renton making a mad dash through the streets of Edinburgh, and at the end of the opening sequence, he runs into an oncoming car.
Renton gets up, rattled, but not injured, and places his hands on the hood of the car as his face erupts into a grin, and then laughter. A man swoops in from the left side of the screen and tackles Renton. Cut scene. “Lust for Life” is still playing.
Upon its release in 1996, Trainspotting was touted as a cinematic tour de force. It followed Renton’s misadventures in Edinburgh with heroin addict friends Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremmer), Tommy (Kevin McKidd) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) as they try to steal, score, drop heroin cold turkey, begin bar fights, have sex and bask in their outright refusal to “choose life.”
Thanks to Trainspotting, Ewan McGregor landed a role in the Star Wars prequels and Danny Boyle went on to direct acclaimed films like Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. In the 20 years since its release, the film garnered a devoted cult following. Its avant-garde style and experimental imagery and storytelling cemented its status as a ‘90s film classic.
Danny Boyle intimated that he’d wanted to revisit the characters from his landmark opus, but found it difficult to find a suitable time to do so. Upon the film’s 20th anniversary, Boyle noted that he and screenwriter John Hodge agreed, “If we’re not gonna do it now, we’ll never do it.”
Hodge reworked material from Irvine Welsh’s novel, Porno, itself a sequel to the original Trainspotting novel that served as a basis for the first film.
The result, T2 Trainspotting, grasps at the haphazard, drug-fueled euphoria that made the first Trainspotting great, this time with more cautious and weary refractions through a thick lens of 20 years.
Violent psychopath Francis Begbie, who instigated a bar fight in the first film by throwing his empty mug of beer over a ledge and hitting a woman in the head, finds himself in jail. He escapes by having an inmate stab him, and then ducks out of the hospital where he undergoes treatment.
Simon (i.e. Sick Boy) makes a living off blackmail, assisted by his Hungarian business associate who poses as a prostitute, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Together, they have dreams of opening a brothel where Veronika can be the madam.
Spud relates a tragically comedic story about how daylight savings time got him fired from his construction job and has left him estranged from his girlfriend and son. As before, he finds solace in heroin.
And Renton returns to Edinburgh after spending 20 years in Amsterdam. His escape from Scotland was made possible by defrauding Spud, Begbie and Sick Boy out of their shares of money they earned in a collective heist at the end of the first film.
Renton chose life, and now he finds himself pulled back into the non-life he shared with his friends 20 years ago. Arriving at his childhood home, his father informs him his mother passed away.
Like its predecessor, T2 finds a way to balance out its darkness with purging bouts of humor.
In one episode, Renton and Veronika find a lawyer to help Simon with his legal troubles. The attorney behind the desk turns out to be a girl Renton had a one-night stand with in the first movie who—unbeknownst to him at the time—was underage. As he and Veronika exit her office, she yells out to Renton: “She’s too young for you!”
As much as things have changed for Renton and his friends, much has unsurprisingly stayed the same. Shortly after Renton and Sick Boy are reunited, they steal scores of debit cards from a group of Unionist protestants who rejoice when the pair perform a song about a 1690 massacre of Catholics.
Begbie remains as violent and psychotic as ever. He spends part of the film trying to teach his college-age son how to rob houses, only to feel personally betrayed when his son declares that he wants to instead focus on his studies in hotel management. The remainder of the movie sees him consumed by an overwhelming urge to strangle the life out of Renton.
Spud is as helpless in this movie as he was in the first. During his first onscreen appearance, he writes a farewell letter to his girlfriend and tries to commit suicide by suffocating himself with a plastic bag in his apartment, only to be saved by Renton’s abrupt arrival.
Rather than wallow in nostalgia, Boyle’s second foray into the lives of the Trainspotting characters makes a concerted effort to confront the present. Yes, Renton and crew look back wistfully on the past—it’s comforting, after all, to remember a time when the defining moments in one’s life still lay ahead in the future.
“It’s just nostalgia!” Sick Boy once yells at Renton. “You’re a tourist in your own youth. We were young; bad things happened.”
And that’s just it. Things happened, like an overwhelming tidal wave that people can only gaze at from the shore but are powerless to escape. Time will bend us to its will, and we can at best react to its temperament with resolve.
Amid their redux of heists, drugs, trysts and fights, Renton and his friends struggle with the individuals they’ve become and the circumstances that have shaped them. It sounds somber, yes—but these guys are still stupid and impetuous enough to make of their vicissitudes something saturated with dark humor.
“Choose life,” Renton lectures Veronika. “Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares. Choose looking up old flames, wishing you’d done it all differently. And choose watching history repeat itself. Choose your future. Choose reality TV, slut shaming, revenge porn. Choose a zero-hour contract, a two-hour journey to work. And choose the same for your kids, only worse, and smother the pain with an unknown dose of an unknown drug made in somebody’s kitchen. And then … take a deep breath. You’re an addict. So be addicted, just be addicted to something else. Choose the ones you love. Choose your future. Choose life.”
In the final scene of the movie, Renton is in his childhood bedroom, which has wallpaper decorated with trains. He turns on a record player and puts on a record that he immediately forced himself to shut off earlier in the film.
A remix to Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” begins to play, this time its thundering drums drenched in static and reverb. The camera pans out, zooming away from Renton and elongating the walls of the room. The camera zooms away faster and faster, those trains on the wall moving more and more swiftly until they dart across the screen.
And then they speed off into the inevitability of the future. One imagines their passengers looking out the windows, glancing longingly into the endless expanse of the past.
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of T2 Trainspotting on Facebook.
Horus Alas is a senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.