All summer, my friend Keith kept nervously whispering: “Trainspotting is coming.” Back in the summer of 1996, I had no idea what he was talking about. I’d scored a full-time job working at a rickety movie theater in Sandusky, Ohio, which is where I’d met Keith. Everything about that theater—all eight projectors and the miles of 35-mm film clicking through dirty sprockets—echoed who I was as a person at the time: uncertain that I’d get through the day; never quite put together; always needing maintenance. A greasy parade of bad movies cycled through our walls: Escape from L.A., Striptease and Kazaam with Shaq. Still, I was addicted to that place as much as I’d later get addicted to substances.
Keith couldn’t stop tweaking about Trainspotting, though. It was coming over from Europe, he said. (This was early Internet, too, so God knows how he’d even heard about it.) Even the title sounded dark, sexy and exotic in a cold and detached way. But if Keith was interested in it, so was I. We eventually had to drive 45 minutes to the nearest theater playing it. Since then, much has been artfully written about someone seeing Trainspotting for the first time: long essays about how it’s a kinetic jolt of adrenaline that mimics the ecstasy and horrors of shooting heroin—and it was certainly unlike anything I’d seen before.
That’s what makes T2: Trainspotting such a complicated experience for me: I went in chasing that same high, full-well knowing I’d never achieve it. Therein lies the beautiful trick of director Danny Boyle’s sequel. T2 is a lot like middle age: it’s stylish, but not sleek; sprawling, yet somehow subdued. It’s about what happens after the adrenaline wears off and life settles down into its own fascinating, equally dangerous thing.
“What Have You Been Up To … For 20 Years?”
Sequels are tricky business—especially when you’re dealing with decades between the last installment. No amount of therapy will ever undo what happened to me in the hours I spent enduring Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. I could literally feel my love for that character and universe being disassembled on a genetic level, turning everything I enjoyed into hate. With T2, however, the timing is everything. It’s not a weird cash-grab to get Renton (Ewan McGregor), Spud (Ewan Bremner), “Sick Boy” (Jonny Lee Miller) and festering-rage monster Begbie (Robert Carlyle) into the same scene. No, T2 is all about forcing us to look at what these characters have become. Near the opening of the film, Sick Boy deadpans to Renton: “So what have you been up to … for 20 years?”
Everyone has a genuine lived-in look and it’s exactly where they should be, 20 years removed from where they were at the end of Trainspotting. Not everyone’s story is neatly tied up. When we first see Renton, he’s not running down a side street, having just stolen all of Begbie’s drug money. Now, he’s running on a treadmill. He’s apparently living a clean life in Amsterdam, it’s revealed, on the spoils of the first film’s double-cross. When he returns to his old Edinburgh stomping grounds, he’s neither surprised nor shocked by what he encounters among his former heroin addict friends—despite what he finds. When he first finds Spud (for whom he left $4,000 at the end of the first film)—his old friend is still struggling with heroin addiction and just wants to end it all. “Sick Boy,” still upset by Renton’s betrayal, needs to come to terms with his old friend’s return—and what he would have done to Renton had the tables been turned. In any other film, these plot points would be the main point. Not here. They’re as dismissed as the countless cars in Jason Bourne’s rearview mirror as he tears down the Las Vegas Strip in an armored car.
There are echoes of the original Trainspotting in this one—enough callbacks to remind you that this is a sequel—but you wouldn’t be mistaken if you occasionally wonder if you’d stumbled into an entirely original movie. It’s its own thing. It’s designed to evoke the same feelings you had for the original, but only so far as to cause melancholy. (Hello, Mid Life.) More than anything, watching them evade revenge-minded Begbie throughout the end of the movie forces you to remember how different things are though they themselves haven’t changed at all. Which, watching the sequel, is exactly how I felt about myself.
“There’s No Meaning in Chaos Anymore”
I’m the film-goer who still has to cover his hands during the “baby sequence” of the original—and no, not the one where the animatronic baby is climbing the ceiling. I still recall that shot of the crib—the building dread of what those addicted parents will find lying there having forgotten about the baby for days. (As a parent, I even have a difficult time writing this sentence.) And yet the original Trainspotting is considered by some to be a “comedy”—or at the very least, a Very Dark British Comedy. Its sequel isn’t as intent on plunging Renton into the “Worst Toilet in Scotland” again, but the viscera isn’t entirely gone either. In fact, what’s shocking is just how un-shocking everything has become. Boyle makes shooting up and snorting drugs so crazily mainstream and mundane and commonplace that they’re almost inert, casual moments of the film. He robs them of any power. That’s the real jolt of the sequel: for characters in their 40s, there’s no meaning in chaos anymore.
Boyle employs a lot of technical tricks to keep everything alive and enervated—shifting colors and frenetic camerawork, not to mention all the unusual places he manages to strap a camera (like a microphone stand). There’s a lot of you-are-here immersion in the movie, but it’s meant to serve its characters, not the movie’s style. And all the drug scenes carry an added sadness missing from the original. It’s about addiction, yes—and in many ways, it actually has more to do with addiction than the original one did. It’s about being addicted to connections and the emptiness we feel when we can’t find it in Instagram or Twitter or Facebook. At its core, T2 posits that these aren’t just people who are recovering from drugs—they’re recovering from the ruin of human relationships, which has proven to be just as destructive and long-lasting.