*DISCLAIMER: This review reveals major spoilers for Trainspotting and minor spoilers for T2 Trainspotting.*
20 years after Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting hit theatres and broke new ground, he and the original cast have returned for another round in T2 Trainspotting, which takes elements from both Irvine Welsh’s original novel, Trainspotting, and its sequel, Porno. After betraying his friends and running off with £16000, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to Edinburgh to reunite with Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) to get away from life; which leads to more trouble than he imagined.
Boyle and his screenwriter, John Hodge, know very well that this, like most of its type, is an extremely unnecessary sequel that will in no way top the magic of its predecessor. However, they use this to their advantage by creating a stunning piece of closure for these characters that intelligently uses nostalgia as a theme rather than a crutch. The film touches on the ideas of aging, monotony and acceptance through a brilliant screenplay, wonderful cinematography and a daring score.
Right off the bat, the film succeeds highly on a technical level. The cinematography by frequent Boyle collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle (28 Days Later), is absolutely stunning. The camera work brilliantly walks the fine balance between overly frantic and calmly subdued to a wonderful effect. The balance helps create the tone of each scene since the film itself also walks the same tonal tightrope. On one hand, the framing can be nostalgic as it harkens back to the original film, but it can also be haunting and even tragic at the same time. In one prominent example, as Renton is being chased by a violent, vengeful Begbie, there’s a shot of him getting up right in front of the hood of a car and as he looks at it, he laughs. This completely parallels a shot from the original film where Renton does the same thing on the run from the police. The difference between the two shots is the context in which Renton laughs. In the original film, the laugh is much more juvenile and innocent, but in T2, Renton’s laugh is one of guilt and relief that he is safe. In scenes like this, it shows that while the camera work is designed to provide a throwback, it also presents these iconic frames in a unique way from its predecessor.
The soundtrack also works to solidify tones in each scene while still throwing back to the same youthful rock vibe in the predecessor’s soundtrack. Boyle really hammers in the theme of aging with Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga.” The song, a plea to save radio from being inevitably taken over by MTV and music videos, works flawlessly as a metaphor for the desperation found in our protagonists to feel that youthful spark again, especially in the nightclub Renton and Sick Boy visit. There are some haunting and bleak songs present in the soundtrack such as “Silk” by Wolf Alice that help contrast the youthful rock vibe to symbolize a change in perspective in two different ways. On one hand, the song is more mature, thoughtful and experienced than something like “Lust for Life,” the most prominent song from the original film. Perhaps this is Boyle’s way of showing that despite often being up to the same antics, our protagonists have matured to some extent at least. On the other hand, “Silk” is also more contemporary and, therefore, could represent the change in the state of music in the 20 years between these two films. This song works in a similar manner that “Lust for Life” did in the predecessor. Both are used as youth anthems for their times, so it begs the question: what is Boyle saying about the youth of 2017? Considering the monotonous vibe in the vocal delivery of the lyrics, which revolve around the struggle to find happiness, and the haunting atmosphere in its rhythm, perhaps Boyle is saying that things are more difficult now than they were before, both for our protagonists and society. By playing that song in this film, Boyle emphasizes the theme of monotony and the worthlessness of life as was done with both “Choose Life” monologues in each film.
All of these characters are searching for some kind of joy, but they never find it. Instead, they just find is the need for acceptance, which is truly utilized in the use of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” In the original film, the song essentially represents their youthful energy, living to the fullest and refusing to care about anything otherwise. Here, the song is not only used as a reminder of that energy, but also as a symbol of acceptance. When the song is first heard in T2, Renton starts playing it on his turntable before immediately turning it off. It’s only heard once more at the very end of the film as Renton tries playing it again and just allows it to continue as he dances along. The ending is essentially a representation of Renton finally accepting his past and moving on. While it could be interpreted as him going back to his old ways, there’s one key element that can easily disprove that: the version of “Lust for Life” that Renton plays at the end is actually a remix by The Prodigy. By going back to the idea of more contemporary music representing growth, by using a remix made exclusively for the film instead of the original, Boyle is showing that Renton has reflected on the past with a more mature set of eyes and accepts it as well as his growth in the last 20 years. The soundtrack and cinematography are key to helping the film and its themes succeed, and are utilized with such brilliance and power through their ability to enhance the experience.
Even with the wonderful performances and outstanding technical merits, the highlight of this film without a doubt is its screenplay. John Hodge (who also wrote the first film) understands what this is and takes advantage of it. While the nostalgic elements could’ve easily been used as a crutch, Hodge and Boyle decide to use it as the central theme of the film. Throughout the film, one is constantly reminded of the predecessor from small lines to full-on flashbacks, but they never choose to glamorize the past. Instead, this is a far bleaker film than its predecessor (though still not without its share of hilarity in the right places) as they reflect with much scorn and bitterness at the choices the characters made. In choose one particular instance, Renton, Spud and Sick Boy are reminiscing about the past as Sick Boy reminds Renton about how he got Tommy (one of the protagonists from the first film) into heroin which led to his death, as Renton also reminds Sick Boy how his drug abuse led to the death of his infant child due to neglect. There is also a revised version of the infamous “Choose Life” speech to fit the new time period. While some will see it as a desperate attempt to win over millennials and provide nostalgia for fans, the speech feels just as biting and powerful as it did 20 years ago. Now, Renton is ranting about social media, exploitation, the desire for attention, the longing to change the past, going back to old ways, being screwed over and covering the pain with substance abuse. The speech uses its nostalgia to allow Renton to have a far more bleak reflection of his emotional state and his world than he did in the original film. With scenes like these, Boyle and Hodge set to give these characters a darker wake-up call through the use of nostalgia that is not only effective for fans of the original film, but also people who can easily relate to these characters.
With the film primarily looking at nostalgia with such bitter cynicism, it also gives off a vibe of self-awareness and possible cinematic commentary, whether or not it’s intentional. With so many sequels and reboots being released now solely to cash in on nostalgia, this film has no qualms with taking off the rose tinted glasses. This makes T2 feel like a commentary on the over-reliance on nostalgia in this sense. The message here is that we should leave the past behind instead of looking back as it may not be as glamorous as we perceive it and that same feeling can never be recaptured. This is also true of a lot of sequels and remakes today because they often fail to recreate that same feeling as before, and may even sour the wonderful taste of that past, just like how it does for these characters. Whether we want to admit it or not, this is a highly unnecessary sequel, and Boyle knows it. With that said, he isn’t afraid to say it either, which makes this film more unique and subversive than one would think.
T2 Trainspotting could’ve easily been another useless trip down memory lane, but thanks to an intelligent script, excellent performances and a fantastic use of technical work, this new film is both a wonderfully somber piece of closure and a hard hitting subversion of nostalgia. While fans will especially get a kick out of it, the uninitiated will probably find something to love as well. Choose life, choose memories, choose sadness, choose going beyond generic expectations, choose T2 Trainspotting.
(Featured image: TriStar Pictures)