I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Choose life,” Mark Renton suggested back in 1996, when he was a heroin addict in Edinburgh. Mark’s advice was ironic, of course, because he “chose not to choose life” and was courting death by overdose or death by AIDS-acquired-via-a-shared-needle. But the life he was rebelling against was one of conformity and consumerism — “choose a fucking big television; choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers” — a life in which no one actually has much choice anyway. So, while Trainspotting hardly romanticizes drug addiction — the film’s depictions of the ravages of smack are mostly disgusting (sometimes hilariously so) and often horrifying — there was a certain defiance, a certain choosing of living on one’s own terms, in Mark’s refusal to sleepwalk into doing the expected, the whatever-the-hell everyone else was doing. Which came to the fore in the film’s ending, when he walked away from his friends with the gym bag full of money they’d all just scammed their way into. Nasty, perhaps. Uncool to his friends, definitely. But what a choice.
Whatever sparse, cold satisfaction might have been wrung from Trainspotting’s punk insolence is gone from T2, to be replaced with an exhausted, bitter cynicism, one that barely has any tolerance for melancholy and even less room for sympathy. It is exactly the right tone to take for a portrait of weary Generation Xers trying to navigate a world newly falling apart, one that has failed to live up to even the narrow promises of our youth, the ones Mark rejected. We’re not surprised that everything sucks. Everything pretty much always has. Everything has been falling apart on us our whole lives.
(The original Trainspotting was one of the first movies I reviewed when I embarked upon this film criticism thing… when I helped invent it for the Internet. Two decades on, I am as depleted as Mark, as disappointed in how the world has fizzled out on our generation.)
It’s today in T2, and Mark (Ewan McGregor: Beauty and the Beast, Our Kind of Traitor), fleeing a failed marriage, returns from, ahem, an extended sojourn abroad in Amsterdam to discover that Simon (Jonny Lee Miller: Dark Shadows (2012), Aeon Flux) — aka Sick Boy — is landlord of a rundown pub that no one drinks in; that Begbie (Robert Carlyle: 28 Weeks Later, Eragon) is in prison but has a nearly grown son who seems like he’s got it all pretty together; and that Spud (Ewen Bremner: Get Santa, Exodus: Gods and Kings) is still a junkie, and estranged from his wife and child. None of them are very happy to see Mark, and indeed Mark’s motive in turning up seems to be more one of a pendulum swinging inevitably back to its starting point than any genuine desire to see his old friends. Simon and Spud eventually come around, but Begbie is still full of rage over Mark’s betrayal (and just full of rage as a habit).
What happens from there includes more felonies, a bit of drug use (though not much: Mark is mostly addicted to exercise these days), and some traditional male-bonding (or rebonding, in this case). It’s inevitably less shocking than Trainspotting was, partly because its characters are older, a tad wiser, and too worn out by living on the edge to do that anymore: Mark and Simon spend a bit of time in front of Simon’s fucking big television, in fact, which is a fucking hell of a lot bigger than a fucking big television would have been in 1996. But also we’re no longer surprised by Danny Boyle’s genius; Trainspotting was only his second feature, after 1994’s Shallow Grave, and we know now what to expect from him like we didn’t then. (His recent work includes Steve Jobs, Trance, 127 Hours, and the wonderfully bonkers opening ceremony of the 2012 London summer Olympics.) Of course, Boyle is even more astonishing as a filmmaker now, and T2 is visually stirring and exciting: one particularly heart-wrenching image, which is on the screen only very briefly, lets a shadow on a wall emphasize the hole the death of Mark’s mother has left on his little family and on his childhood home.
But the most intriguing aspects of T2 are thematic, in the passage of time not only for these characters but for the world. (The script is by frequent Boyle collaborator John Hodge, based on novelist Irvine Welsh’s 2002 sequel to Trainspotting, Porno. But the action moves very easily to today.) The film was shot last summer, after the Brexit vote and after Donald Trump had secured the Republican presidential nomination, and it can’t help but score zingers on the same forces of cultural retreat and retrenchment that have driven these connected horrors. (T2 may be very British, but it will resonate with Americans, too.) Mark arrives back in Edinburgh to find a very different city from 1996, all Starbucks and pretty young Eastern European things working for the tourist board handing out brochures in tiny tartan skirts. He’s amused by this — the Amsterdam he’s been living in will have become similarly full of chain stores and immigrants — and later he gets involved in a scam with Simon to get some EU development money for a rather shady improvement to his pub. There’s a Euro cheeriness to T2, and a definite smack at those who cling to ancient, local identities rather than embracing a more diverse perspective: another subplot revolves around Mark and Simon taking advantage of members of a Protestant social club of who cannot let go of a military victory over Catholics that happened in 1690, which the guys are able to pull off because their victims are so predictable in their singlemindedness.
Mark’s got a new “choose life” speech here, and it’s all about the brutality of social media and the crushing horribleness of the economy. But there’s nothing nostalgic here, no yearning for the past, and when it seems as if Mark is about to descend into sentimentality over his return home, Simon warns him to snap out of it: “You’re a tourist in your own youth,” Simon moans in such a way as to suggest that this is not a good idea. There may be a lot of rage against the reality of a world that produced Brexit and Trump, but there’s no suggestion that going backwards is the solution. The only hope is (maybe) powering forward and through.