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Twenty Years Later: Catching up with ‘Trainspotting’

I grew up in a time when sequels to popular and influential movies typically arrived at swift 2- to 3-year intervals.

Star Wars, James Bond, Star Trek, the first two Indiana Jones flicks, Rocky, Rambo, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street—in the decade of the 1980s, you could set your calendar by the regularity of their release patterns. We were so spoiled for it that when a movie like T2 Trainspotting comes along after a twenty-year gap, it’s hard not to stop dead in your tracks—pun intended—and contemplate the magnificent breadth of life experience encompassed in that space of time. You don’t usually think about this stuff when you go see the latest Star Wars movie or the next X-Men flick, but with characters such as the four unrepentant hooligans at the heart of Trainspotting, who are repellent and charismatic all at once, and in whom you once saw a glimmer of a reflection of yourself or someone you love, their 20-year reunion in T2 Trainspotting carries that much more gravitas.

If it seems an unlikely proposition that Danny Boyle would make a follow-up to Trainspotting twenty years later, that’s probably because sequels to “art-house” hits are the exception to the rule, and also because the four young punks at the core of the original movie aren’t particularly admirable to begin with. They’re mates from Edinburgh who grew up together, hang out and tell funny stories together, get into schemes and fights together, and get high together, but they also steal and lie and cheat each other, and defy just about every social norm you can think of. As such, they are more mystifying than most movie characters, and at least partially reflective of the disaffected and rebellious youth of Generation XYZ—enough so that the 1996 movie became a sensation in Europe, and arrived stateside heralded as the next Pulp Fiction.

With its eclectic Brit punk/tech/pop soundtrack, a stable of hot young actors relatively new to U.S. audiences, a speedy screenplay adapted from a novel by a really hip author, and an exciting new filmmaker at the helm (this was director Danny Boyle’s second film), Trainspotting was expected to set the art house box office on fire. It performed well enough ($16 million gross on a $3.5 million budget), but not on the Pulp Fiction scale Miramax Pictures (the U.S. distributor) was hoping for. Yet, in the early days of the internet, before streaming, when most people still went to the cinema to see movies, “sleeper hits” like Trainspotting often lingered in theaters for weeks and even months solely on the strength of word-of-mouth. Like many “cult” movies or little art-house “sleeper” films, Trainspotting found an extended afterlife on home video: the de rigueur VHS cassette release; a bestselling DVD; and even a spiffy Criterion laserdisc edition with the original unintelligible Scottish brogue dialogue track.

I was hooked on Trainspotting from the very first image of Mark Renton’s footsteps pounding the pavement to the startling beat of Iggy Pop’s anthem “Lust for Life,” he and his buddies running from the cops, losing their clutch on some stolen CDs, all while the camera keeps breathless pace on their heels.

From the arresting opening montage to the final and ironical utterance of Renton’s signature “Choose Life” monologue, Trainspotting sustains a level of manic energy and demonstrates such sheer joie de cinema that it hit me like a bolt of lightning, jolting me in a way that gets me excited about the art of filmmaking.

The movie made me rush out to read the novel in order to better appreciate the art of screenplay adaptation, enticed me to purchase not one but two soundtrack compilation CDs, and lured me to queue up to experience it with an audience again—to memorize its comical banter, replay its editorial beats, repeat its song selections, and review its camera dances.

We all have subjective reasons for taking personal ownership of our favorite movies, and my many reasons for hitching onto Trainspotting have a great deal to do with where I was in my life during the summer of 1996—who my friends were, what my family was like, where I was in my “coming out” phase, and who I was intensely involved with. The fact that the four cretins at the heart of Trainspotting used needles to get high isn’t something I’ve ever identified with, but everything else about the film dazzled my senses, sparked my imagination, and stoked my love of movies.

It continues to do so two decades later, which is why I held out on seeing T2 Trainspotting until the very last showing on its very last day at my local multiplex—I feared a sequel couldn’t possibly live up to the original (spoiler alert: it doesn’t) and also that a sequel arriving so long after the original would inevitably feel like a cynical exercise in nostalgia (thankfully, it doesn’t).

I’ve remained an avid fan of Danny Boyle and will see any movie his name is attached to, and felt I owed it one of my favorite filmmakers to see this movie in the cinema. I’m glad I did. It’s not as dizzyingly paced as the original, nor does it feel as inventive, but like all of Boyle’s films, from the great (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire, and of course Trainspotting) to the not-so-great (A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, Trance), there is at least a level of technological skill on display in T2, that same spark of joy for moviemaking that compensates when the screenplay don’t coalesce as well this second time around.

There is an air of melancholia in T2, but also moments of profound, quiet poignancy throughout the screenplay and many well placed call-backs to the original film that drive the plot and even shed new light on previous characters and events. When Renton recites his famous “Choose Life” speech and it derails into an aching rumination on dignified resignation in the wake of dashed hopes, it’s hard not to reflect on your own past twenty years. It helps a great deal to rekindle our emotional connection to these characters that every actor has returned, from the top of the cast to minor peripheral supporting characters.

It’s interesting also to track Boyle’s progress from the first to second Trainspotting films regarding his innovative and increased use of multiple digital cameras. Boyle shot the first Trainspotting on 35mm film, but beginning with 28 Days Later in 2003 he became one of the first mainstream directors to shoot a major motion picture with a camcorder (well, the majority of that film was shot on video; the finale was filmed on 35mm celluloid). From 28 Days Later all the way up to Boyle’s previous film Steve Jobs he has increasingly relied on video-based cinematography, though always blending it with elements of traditional celluloid film.

Here in T2 Trainspotting Boyle has completely eschewed celluloid film and gone fully, entirely digital. For a celluloid purist, this, more than any of the film’s untangled plot threads or resolved character arcs, is the most sobering and heartbreaking notion of them all.


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