Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose….a sequel? Trainspotting may seem an unlikely candidate for a sequel, but that’s exactly what makes it so interesting and effective
At first glance, T2 may seem to fit into the recent trend of bringing old, popular films back to relevance with a delayed sequel. Zoolander 2, Independence Day: Resurgence, and Jason Bourne are some recent examples of new films picking up decade(s) old stories with the goal of recapturing past glory and, of course, box office success. We complain about these films as manifestations of studio greed taking advantage of past popularity at the expense of original artistic expression, yet all these examples I provided made profits at the box office. This is our awkward relationship and fascination with the modern phenomenon of nostalgia. We can’t help but embrace that which gave us so much joy from our past, yet we can never shake the feeling that a new version or long overdue sequel will never quite be the same.
Against these preconceived notions comes T2 Trainspotting, a sequel with a weird name to the 1996 hit film Trainspotting. T2 is, by definition, a delayed sequel. This is a film that is trying to continue a familiar story, in this case 20 years later. This is a film that’s banking on the popularity of the original cult favorite to get you to pay to see this new version in theaters. This is a film that massages you into submission with familiar setting, plot, and plenty of flashbacks. So what’s so special? What makes T2 different than all those other delayed sequels hitting theaters in recent times? The answer is that T2 was created to explore nostalgia, rather than exploit it. This is a subtle, yet important difference.
At its core, T2 is a film about nostalgia. It just happens to be a sequel to one of the most subversive films ever made. That original film was effective partially because it was so shocking. There was no way a sequel could maintain that sort of surprise, which may be why it never had one during the normal gestation period for those type of things to occur. 20 years later, that sequel is unexpected, and yes, maybe shocking because it is unexpected. This is the last film we would expect to sell out for the sake of exploiting fans of the original. Why would one of the most rebellious films ever made come back with a commercialized second helping?
Well, profits, sure, but also to make a point in a way that otherwise could not be done. The filmmakers realize that we are living in an age that is mesmerized by the past. Rather than create something new, we are re-living the past with its successes and failures all over again. The famous quote states that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. T2 makes the same statement, and goes further to say that our fascination with the past has been mainly focused on the good times, not necessarily the bad ones. Despite our intentions of “bringing back past glory” we’re missing the picture. Humanity as a species is not evolving. We’re stuck.
In T2, the characters are caught in this state of mind, and they don’t notice until it is too late. When we last left the group of heroin addicts, Renton had betrayed them at their moment of victory. In T2, he returns and must deal with the consequences of his actions. Sick Boy is still caught up in his get rich quick schemes, temperamental Begbie is still out for revenge, and Spud’s addictions have nearly cost him his life. 20 years later, and the gang is still very much the same. They haven’t “grown up” or gotten past their problems. They’ve been doing the same things over and over again. Like many of us they are caught in an inescapable cycle. Yet each of them is given an opportunity to escape, to choose life if you will, and they refuse.
There’s a parallel here to contemporary movie tastes, and indeed the way we run our lives today. T2 explains how we’re not actually afraid of change, but so desperate for it that we don’t realize we’ve ended up making the same mistakes again. Like Begbie’s attempt to escape from prison, there’s a lack of patience for results. Like Sick Boy’s money making schemes, there’s a lack of effort to put in the hard work necessary to achieve success. Even without the hard drug addictions, we see these characters in the same way. They want instant gratification. In 20 years, their approach to life hasn’t changed.
One of the most hilarious moments of the film finds Renton and Sick Boy taking advantage of a group of Glorious Revolution sympathizers. Here we have an entire group of people joining together to celebrate their love of the past. Having Renton and Sick Boy steal from them works on many levels. At the more basic level, it’s a funny scene. Look deeper and you’ll see the parallels of modern movie makers able to take money from their audience due to their preoccupations with the past, this film included. This is just one example of how T2 works on many different levels. It’s not just a movie that is trying to rehash a cult favorite for a new generation, it has something genuinely interesting and different to say. By being self-referential for those keen enough to see it, T2 transcends the typical stigma of delayed sequels.
The fact that the film walks the walk (or exists in the first place) may be enough for many people to write it off right away. Look just beneath the obvious though, and you will see the ingenuity of veteran director Danny Boyle. Boyle, who helmed that first film, is perhaps the only one who could have pulled off this progression. It’s every bit as much of a gamble as the first film, and I think he pulls it off. Boyle always brings a certain energy and enthusiasm to his projects that can be felt when watching his films. This one is no different. Boyle’s quick cuts, fast wit, and bright color palette help make what is actually a pretty depressing film very fun to watch. It doesn’t have the same spark and originality in concept of the first film, so Boyle makes up for it in other ways. Between the original and this film, Boyle has had 20 years to grow as a director, and that experience really shows. The film is constructed in such a way so that surprises can be revealed as the plot progresses, which keeps things interesting. With 4 main characters to focus on, this film also feels less fragmented and more consistent than the original.
Boyle’s wit helps to create some fantastic site gags throughout the movie. These moments not only add to the enjoyment of the film, but also play into the theme of nostalgia. There’s a chase sequence that not only mimics a similar sequence from the original film, but has shots pulled straight from Orson Welles' The Third Man, another from The Shining. The film also never ceases to be visually interesting. The grungy setting of the first film is still there, but through camera placement and the cinematography, it seems more vivid and interesting. The story also utilizes a lot of flashbacks, to mixed results. If anything, they add to the nostalgia factor by continuously reminding you of the similarities between this film and the original. This was one aspect I felt the film could have done without because they feel a bit repetitious, and fans of the original will already make the connections anyway.
Boyle’s excellent direction, and a plot that is entertaining and meaningful on multiple levels helps T2 to navigate many of the pitfalls that have befallen onto other delayed sequels. Yet, if that’s all this film was, a solid redux of a cult favorite, it would have still been ultimately disappointing. Instead, it is more than that. T2 is just as much a sequel to Trainspotting as it is a film about growing up and reflecting upon the past, which just happens to use the characters from a cult hit from 20 years ago. By using the story and characters of Trainspotting to explore this idea, the filmmakers begin with a basis of familiarity, and can extrapolate from there. Without having the original film as the foundation upon which to establish “the good ol’ days”, this kind of exploration of nostalgia wouldn’t have worked. That makes T2 Trainspotting a unique kind of film, even if it doesn't seem that way on the surface.
More than just another delayed sequel.
What's Good: It's always fun seeing some of our favorite characters return to the big screen, Boyle's energy and experience as director really keep things moving, a plot full of surprises (yet comfortingly familiar), great cinematography, witty and funny script, and the fact that the entire film production is an interesting method to explore the past.
What's Bad: Constant flashbacks are annoying, not as profound or creative as the original film, has to work against your preconceived notions of delayed sequels, misses some opportunities to broaden the scope of the retrospective.