By Rey Barceló
How do you spend a life you didn’t ask for? If you have an answer, please inform the characters in “T2 Trainspotting.” They’d really like to know.
When we last saw these raucous Scots in the original “Trainspotting,” they knew they were living on borrowed time. It was 1996, and a combination of HIV/AIDS, heroin addiction and adolescent rage all but guaranteed they would die young – and they preferred it that way. When Ewan McGregor’s Rent Boy told us to “choose life,” he was being sarcastic. Everyone remembers “choose life,” but fewer remember Renton proclaiming “I chose not to choose life. I choose something else.”
Flash forward 21 years, where every one of them has survived to a middle age they never wanted. Renton (Ewan McGregor) has gone from junkie to corporate lackey. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) runs a mediocre bar. Spud (Ewan Bremner) still uses heroin for lack of anything better to do. They didn’t choose life so much as allow life to make the choices for them.
Their emptiness turns each of them to the only escape more dangerous than heroin: nostalgia. In an effort to recreate the “good old days,” the former enemies forgive old wrongdoings and team up once again. They get roped into singing karaoke in the middle of a robbery. They turn to old vices. They use a lot of Scottish curse words you’ve probably never heard before. So far, so predictable.
But although their childish antics make for good entertainment, it’s impossible to ignore the current of dissatisfaction underneath them. They’re not reliving the past so much as trying to recreate it. Maybe, just maybe, if they live every day like they’re 25, they can be 25 again.
Director Danny Boyle uses his typically maximalist style to subversive effect here, with his manic energy becoming the visual manifestation of his characters’ midlife crisis. Whereas his techniques in the original “Trainspotting” (bizarre camera angles, impossibly constructed sets and projected images onto walls) made the film feel full of life, his use of similar techniques here seems deliberately self-parodying. He plays three hard rock songs at once and it’s really loud! He attaches a GoPro to a microphone and Ewan McGregor’s face looks kind of funny! Aren’t we having fun?
Well, yes and no. “T2 Trainspotting” is fun in the same way the Titanic was a pleasure cruise: It is until it isn’t. But it’s also what you choose to make of it. If you want to overlook the ennui and read “T2 Trainspotting” as a playful remembrance of things past, go right ahead. It can be a wildly entertaining film if you want it to be. (I realize that, having been born after the original “Trainspotting” was released, I don’t have the same emotional attachment to it that others might have.) But if you want a film that fights against its own existence – a rare sequel that definitively states that things are worse for their characters than they used to be – I invite you to examine “T2 Trainspotting” a little closer.
Contact Rey Barcelo at rbarcelo ‘at’ stanford.edu.