Choose to make a highly anticipated sequel to a 20 year old movie. Choose to ignore the cynicism surrounding remakes, follow-ups, and other so-called money-draining exploitations of an initial “good movie”. Choose nostalgia. Choose letting an entire generation reach for the last lingering strings of their youth. Choose to accept some meagre compliments and face the bile from the rest who tell you it was complete shite. Choose life.
The long-awaited (and at the same time dreaded) sequel to Trainspotting must have felt like a millstone to director Danny Boyle, who was allegedly plagued by a hushed “it’d better not be shite” even on set from the cast and crew. Fearing the Sequel Curse, for many critics and fans of the franchise, waiting for the release of T2 Trainspotting was like waiting for a bomb to explode that would completely destroy the cult franchise.
Did it explode? Some critics found it a worthy tribute to original movie. Others blamed Boyle for relying too much on the gaudy powers of nostalgia. Indeed, for a moment it seemed as if nostalgia’s call would lure the narrative into a revival of the 1996 Trainspotting. The Edinburgh boys have aged but they haven’t grown. After betraying his friends by running away with the 16.000 pounds they made from drug deal, Mark spent his adult life with his Dutch wife in Amsterdam. Now he is in the middle of a divorce and a recovery from a cardiac arrest, wondering how he’s going to spend the next 30 years. Simon, off heroin but chained to coke, inherited a ramshackle pub near the abandoned Edinburgh harbor (“the great wave of gentrification has yet to engulf us”), making money on the side by blackmailing men with recorded sex sessions with his “girlfriend” Veronika. Spud, estranged from his wife and teenage son, is still a heroin junkie. As for Begbie, it didn’t come as a surprise that his erratic psychotic behavior would lead him to a life behind bars.
In this reunion, like in the old days, Mark and Simon go out, drinking, snorting, being their usual up-to-no-good-selves, while kind-hearted junkie Spud tags along and Franco terrorizes the group. Like their eternal affair with drugs, the guys’ aptitude for criminality hasn’t gone anywhere. In an effort to make good money, Mark and Simon decide to turn Simon’s failing pub into a sauna/brothel. To finance this enterprise they go out on a scavenging hunt for the bank cards of the Orange Order, a fraternal protestant organization celebrating the protestant victory over the Catholics in 1690. Forced to sing, Simon takes place behind the piano while Mark pleases the crowd with a made up song ending every verse with “There were no more Catholics left!” Funny as it may be, and even though it is a worthy tribute to their turbulent adolescent years, Mark and Simon’s boyish charm has long worn off and acquired a bittersweet aftertaste – the viewer knows fully well that Simon and Mark’s sauna/brothel is never going to happen. Even they themselves may know that. But for the time being we want to believe in Renton and Sick Boy’s dream. For old times’ sake.
So the movie is driven by a longing for the past. In and of itself, the revival of a 20-year-old film that did not necessarily call for a sequel can be seen as adolescent sentimentality or even, for the cynics among us, an exploitation of a cult classic. Yet the movie is aware of its own nostalgia. It knows that the poetry of the past cannot reverberate in the present and that memory is better at reshaping reality than heroin. So for the boys, the thrilling and hysterical years of their drug use take the foreground. Dead babies crawling over the ceiling and dying friends don’t fit in that image. But when we see Mark, hanging over the hood of a car exactly as he did twenty years ago, ecstatically smiling at the driver, inhaling the breath of his youth, we wonder whether this is him coming back to life or just a lost man who desperately tries to retrieve a false idealization of his adolescence. “You’re a tourist in your own youth,” remarks Simon about Mark.
Boyle continuously flirts with the past but keeps an eye out for the future. Visually, T2 reminds us of its original energetic and hallucinating cinematography with the daring color schemes and scenes meshing seamlessly into one another. T2 knows where it came from and repeatedly shows us flashbacks to the grainy low-budget original without being sappy. Another worthy tribute to Trainspotting is the music. While there is RUN-DMC, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and of course Trainspotting’s anthem “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop, Boyle has also brought in a new line of exhilarating Britpop with Mercury-winning Edinburgh hip hop trio Young Fathers, Peckham post-punkers Fat White Family, and Irish comedy rappers The Rubberbandits.
The 90s counterculture movements, AIDS hysteria, and heroin chic aesthetic belong to the past. Now, Mark’s famous “choose life” speech has been translated to the language the present, still striking the painful chords of the zeitgeist like it did 20 years ago: “Choose an iPhone made by a woman in China that jumped out of a window and stick it in the pocket of your jacket fresh from a South-Asian fire trap. Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and thousand other ways to spew your bile across people you’ve never met. Choose rape jokes, slut-shaming, revenge porn and an endless tide of depressing misogyny.” Yet, the nonchalance with which Mark used to utter these words in Trainspotting have now been replaced with middle-age bitterness. For 26-year-old Mark there was always heroin, but clean 46-year-old Mark has no narcotics to change the depressing reality of modern life. Perhaps the only antidote is just to move on; “The world is changing, even if we don’t,” says Begbie.
It’s easy for me to recognize the nostalgia without feeling it. I didn’t watch Trainspotting on a VCR and listen to Iggy Pop afterwards with a group of counterculture friends who were fascinated by the idea of drugs but would never touch a heroin needle in their lives. I didn’t watch T2 with the same friends who are now enjoying their comfortable bourgeois life 20 years later. The first time I saw Trainspotting was on a study group movie-night in 2014. For me, the Edinburgh boys’ inexhaustible lust for life, once again verbalized in the cinematography and music, made for another memorable and electrifying view – a worthy tribute to the original. So T2 doesn’t only ride on the wave of the successes of its original but is equally intoxicating in its own right. But for the real diehard fans and those who are still high on the trip that Trainspotting brought them 20 years ago it might be better to stay at home. Everybody knows mixing drugs can be fatal.