“Nostalgia,” Sick Boy scoffs. “You’re a tourist in your own childhood.”
It is no surprise that Trainspotting 2 is saturated with nostalgia. It is, after all, a long-delayed sequel to a beloved nineties classic, a prestige picture counterpart to Jurassic World or Independence Day: Resurgence. Despite its fine pedigree, Trainspotting 2 is subject to the same basic questions. Is this really necessary? Does the original require a sequel? Can this film be judged on its own terms? Why now? Is there anything more to the film than cynical nostalgia?
After all, one can never go home again. Any true sequel to Trainspotting would not be a film directed by Danny Boyle, featuring these characters or carrying this branding. Part of the appeal of Trainspotting was its gritty youthful aesthetic, the product of a young film-maker and a young cast with everything to prove against all odds. This is fundamentally at odds with approaching the original as a venerate relic and building a worshipful sequel around it. That is the central tension of Trainspotting 2.
This is also a key strength of Trainspotting 2. At its strongest, Trainspotting 2 is more a movie about the trap of nostalgia and the dangers of its sweet allure than a sequel to the adventures of four heroin addicts in nineties Edinburgh. Still, Trainspotting 2 is trapped in the gravity of its younger and angrier self. Trainspotting was a young man’s film, all manic energy and desperation and iconoclasm. Trainspotting 2 is a middle-aged man’s film, affectionate and soft in the middle. Its desperation is quieter and less endearing.
Trainspotting 2 is in some ways smarter than Jurassic World or Independence Day: Resurgence, if perhaps undercut by the fact that it is a little less cynical. The modern wave of belated sequels and reboots seldom disguise their nostalgia, gleefully indulging an audience’s desire to reconnect with a lost childhood in the hope of finding comfort and security in the familiar. At the same time, they rarely meditate upon and seldom explicitly acknowledge it beyond the superficial embrace of hero shots and cameo appearances.
There is a great film to be made about the sheer weight of nostalgia in contemporary culture, the desire to recapture a past that never existed evoked through slogans like “Make America Great Again” or “Take Back Control” and reflected through a steady diet of long-postponed sequels to movies like xXx and special revival “event” series of classic shows like Will and Grace. Nostalgia is often satisfied, but seldom explored. After all, drawing attention to a magician’s illusion tends to ruin the effect.
Trainspotting 2 is undoubtedly an exercise in nostalgia. The film borrows wholesale from the original Trainspotting. From its opening scene, the movie repeatedly teases out the connection back to the original film. Quick teasing flashes to the iconic opening scene, never in focus for more than a split seconds. A few bars of Lust for Life, then giving way to remix before the original blares on the speakers. Trainspotting 2 ramps up its nostalgia, but it ramps up very quickly.
Major events from Trainspotting are heavily referenced, with the events of the film driven by the ending to the original film while the characters’ various original sins are repeated acknowledged. Scenes from the original movie are lovingly recreated in the modern day; Trainspotting 2 repeatedly using cross-cutting with the original film and samples from the original soundtrack to make sure that the audience is up to speed. Similarly, footage from the original plays out, both projected on to surfaces and spliced into the movie.
History repeats itself. Beats and scenes from the original film are recycled shamelessly, with characters drawing attention to the familiarity of it all. “First there is opportunity,” Danny explains, with the film looping back over his words of wisdom, “then betrayal.” In some ways, Trainspotting 2 feels as much a remake as a sequel, with the cinema ticket feeling like a trip back in time. In some respects, it is the exact same logic that drives belated sequels like Jurassic World and Independence Day.
And yet. There is an endearing sense of self-awareness to Trainspotting 2, a sense that this nostalgia is itself the entire point of the film. It is a movie that presents itself as a sequel merely so it can draw attention to these prevailing cultural winds. It is not the content of the film that seems to matter, but the film’s very existence. Trainspotting 2 plays like the ultimate reflexive postmodern deconstruction of nostalgia, a film well aware of the sadness hiding beneath the pantomime of childhood joy.
After all, its nostalgia is highly and consciously affected. The opening sequence of Trainspotting 2 alludes to its predecessor by focusing on Mark Renton once again on the run. However, he is running in place. The streets of Edinburgh have been replaced by a treadmill. The climax of film places Mark in a literal hall of mirrors, nothing but himself reflected back as the past returns to revenge itself upon him. The closing scene imagines a child’s bedroom – the embodiment of nostalgia – stretched to infinity.
Although the cast have lived through those two decades since the original film was released, Trainspotting 2 makes it clear that nothing much has happened. The entire plot of the film is Mark returning home having accomplished nothing with his life, falling back into the safety and security of what came before. When Mark falls back into a riff on his iconic “choose life” speech, it is structured as a conscious call-back of a middle-aged man desperately trying to regain some sense of worth. (Impotence is literal theme for one character.)
Indeed, the nostalgia in display stretches beyond Trainspotting. At one point, the film is set to classic dance anthems that consciously predate the original film, with Queen’s Radio Ga-Ga and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax providing a “one size fits all” approach to nostalgia. Boyle pushes the film even further into the realm of recycled popular culture; two unlikely characters recreate the iconic closing shot of The Graduate while another gets to do his best impression from The Shining.
In fact, the characters’ nostalgia stretches back even further than the original Trainspotting. Most of the characters seem to have been frozen in amber from the end of the first film, but Trainspotting 2 repeatedly pushes back further into the characters’ own childhoods. They remember spending time together, reflect upon teenage crushes, and bond upon the coincidences of secondary school seating assignments. The opening credits even invite the audience to head back with them.
In the film’s best moments, this plays like well-observed cultural and social commentary, the idea of middle-aged men who have grown to expect the world recreated in the image of their childhoods; a far cry from the rebellious and provocative streak that defined the original Trainspotting, and in some way a reflection upon the betrayal (or maybe just the emptiness) of those cultural values from kids who had once called themselves punks. What was once dangerous is now iconic, the razor sharp edge has been dulled.
There is perhaps a broader point at play here. The film’s most prominent new character is a Bulgarian immigrant named Nikki, who finds herself befuddled by the cast’s fixation upon the past. “In my country, people try to forget the past,” she explains at one point. “In your country, all you do is talk about it.” Indeed, Trainspotting 2 repeatedly suggests that nostalgia is a dangerous thing; Danny is undone by his literal inability to move with the time, while Mark is undermined by sins past.
In the film’s most honest moment, Mark and Sick Boy hold one another to account for their most shameful sins; for their involvement and complicity in two horrifying deaths depicted in Trainspotting. The scene is fleeting, and is immediately followed by another awkward attempt to recapture the idylised and romantic version of the past as Mark and Sick Boy shoot up heroin in a direct lift from the original movie. It is very coy and very cute, but the sense is that nostalgia is as much a drug as heroin.
There are hints of a broader sweep to all of this, albeit in a knowing and nodding manner. At one point, Mark and Sick Boy embark upon an audacious raid of a Loyalist Pub. They find themselves surrounded by Britons who are fixated on their own past and their own notions of a romantic historical myth that provides the comfort of shared identity while fueling hatred. It is a short scene delivered with irreverence and charm, but it provides a nice thematic arc to the film; does nostalgia play into the broader social trends?
Ultimately, Trainspotting 2 never follows that thread to its logical conclusion. In fact, this recurring theme of dangerous nostalgia is undercut by a surprisingly tender and sympathetic final act. If the original Trainspotting was driven by youthful vigour, then Trainspotting 2 reflects a middle-aged softness and tenderness. Even the most violent and antagonistic characters are humanised as the film reaches its conclusion, the film indulging in the nostalgia that it initially seems to condemn.
This warmth and affection feels very much at odds with the tone of the film leading to that point. As much as Trainspotting 2 acknowledges its nostalgia and the dangers of that nostalgia, it cannot resist that siren call. The result is a final act that feels unearned and clumsy, one that offers the audience the same comfort and security that it initially seemed to condemn in Mark. The opening two thirds of Trainspotting 2 suggest that actions have consequences, and the past cannot be neutered by nostalgia. The ending rejects these ideas almost entirely.
Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and Trainspotting 2 winds up tripping on it.