For good or ill, nostalgia has taken over cinema. We have reached a point with cinema and TV where anything has the possibility of returning. Gone are the days of a show being canceled with no hope of coming back, and here to stay is the age of not letting go. A few years ago, Arrested Development, a show long since assumed gone forever, returned to our screens. In just a few months we will have more Twin Peaks, when just a few years ago, the chances would have seemed slim at best. By December we’ll have had the third new Star Wars movie in as many years as well as a new Star Trek series, a Charmed reboot, a Baywatch movie, a CHiPs movie, a Lost in Space reboot, a Blade Runner sequel, and a Power Rangers movie to name but a few. All of these exist to be consumed by eager, pre-existing fans who’ll but the tickets or watch the show purely out of nostalgia.
Capitalizing on the trend is T2 Trainspotting, the sequel to 1996’s Trainspotting, a movie lauded at the time as being the UK’s equivalent of Pulp Fiction. It was an independent movie about amoral Scots engaging in drugs, robbery, violence, sex with underage girls, and alcohol. It was shocking, disgusting, wonderful, and something fresh and new. It launched the careers of both cast and crew, especially of director, Danny Boyle, and actors Robert Carlyle and Ewan MacGregor. I first saw the movie as a twelve year old when my older brother let me watch it. It provided me with all kinds of schoolyard bragging rights due to its depiction of drugs and sex — and none of my mates had yet seen it. It was a formative for me in terms of my cinema education. I bought the soundtrack and the published script. I tried and failed to read the novel (written in part in Scots dialect and my brain couldn’t handle it), and I searched out other movies of its kind, including Boyle’s previous movie, Shallow Grave, another dark comedy about friends and trust. However, I didn’t realise the movie’s importance to me until the sequel was released twenty years later.
T2 Trainspotting is a movie about nostalgia that is also heavily nostalgic. When the first trailer dropped, I found myself reminiscing about those early days of my blossoming movie love and it really put into place where Trainspotting sat in my education. Before the movie came to Australia, I re-watched the original and found it to have firmly secured its place in my top ten. And yet, I had never wanted a sequel to it. Irvine Welsh has written a prequel, sequel, and spin off to the original novel, which have all great reviews but I was always happy with just Trainspotting. In my mind, the only reason to return to it would be out of nostalgia (and possibly cash, but let’s pretend to leave that unsaid). It’s clear that the filmmakers know this and they embrace it wholeheartedly. The movie feels like a school reunion or bumping into a mate you haven’t seen in years down the pub.
In my podcast, From First to Last, I often talk about the kinds of TV show finales that can be described as “victory lap endings.” This means the show, in an effort to reward people who have watched the whole thing, will hit on past plot points, bring back characters, mention in-jokes, or recreate scenes. It is a thank you to the fans for sticking with the show and –even if it is a huge amount of fan service — highly satisfying if you have spent years watching the show. T2 Trainspotting feels like the same thing. It is a reward for fans of the original, it is a thank you, and it is a wonderful trip down memory lane. Don’t get me wrong, as a movie it succeeds, as well. It is an entertaining story about revenge, friendship, and looking back on your youth while wondering if you’ve wasted your life. But these ideas are presented always in terms of the first film. The revenge plot is all about the events of the first movie and how Renton stole from the other characters who in turn forgive him, plot against him, or seek to murder him. The friendships are those established in Trainspotting and the fear of wasting their lives all stems from their past lives of crime, excess, addiction, and heroin.
Throughout the movie we see callbacks to past scenes, whether in flashbacks or history repeating itself. Musical cues are remixed, hinted at, or directly played. Events are returned to and discussed with hindsight and from other angles, including the deaths of Tommy and baby Dawn, where Sick Boy and Renton face up to, to a point, their own responsibility for those events. There is even an entire, quite strange sequence, in which Sick Boy and Renton exploit a group of people whose whole social lives seem to be based around a battle between Catholics and Protestants that happened in 1690. The fact that this group of people are so stuck in the past is what helps Renton and Sick Boy steal from them as they have mostly used the year of the battle as their bank PIN making them easy targets once they have had their bank cards stolen by our ‘heroes’.
A key way that the movie returns to the past is completely literal — by having Spud begin to write down his recollections of past events in an effort to get through his drug withdrawals. The things he writes are directly lifted from the novel the first movie was based on. The first time we see Spud write anything, it is ‘The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy’ which are the opening words of Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel. I’ve just starting reading all of Welsh’s Trainspotting books, so to again see those words felt like a reward and reminder of where this whole story originated. Spud’s writings influence some elements of the plot even as they form a eulogy for Tommy, a way for him to reconnect with Gail, and they actually help Begbie, the unrepentant psychopath, reassess his treatment of his own son. In T2 the past can’t be forgotten but it can maybe help fix the present and the future.
T2 likely won’t appeal to people who didn’t like the original or who didn’t watch it during their formative cinema years. It is very much a love letter to that previous movie that at the same time tries to do something new and to move the characters forward, albeit with a heavy emphasis on what has come before. It doesn’t try and recreate the original, remake it or reboot it. It is a return to it. Sick Boy has a line of dialogue in which he describes Renton as being a tourist in his own youth, and this applies to the audience, too. We are tourists in the youths of these characters but also in our own youths when we saw the original Trainspotting and experienced something new and fresh and dangerous. Trainspotting isn’t a movie that cried out for a sequel, but as soon as the first trailer dropped, it was heartwarming to see these characters return like old friends we hadn’t seen for two decades who reached out to us. It reminded me of my own first steps into a love of cinema and the first time I saw a movie that slapped me around and showed me what cinema was capable of. T2 Trainspotting isn’t a perfect movie and it’s not as groundbreaking as the first film, but it is also unashamed to be what it is: a trip down memory lane, a reward for fans, and a love letter to the original.
Featured Image: TriStar Pictures