“Choose Life”, the ironic sneer of a slogan blared from the poster on the wall of every other guy’s room when I entered college in the fall of 1997. A defiant rebel yell from a generation too young to even realize what it was rejecting. It’s natural enough, I suppose; kids don’t know enough to know they don’t know anything yet. But, twenty years later, we have to wonder whether Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Franco know anything more now than they did then. And, if not, can we offer them the same sympathy as we did for a bunch of dumb junkie kids.
And so we have T2 Trainspotting, and no, the peculiar format of the title is never quite explained. But it’s the least of the stylistic flourishes with which Danny Boyle embellishes this sequel. The gang are all back — the ones who survived the first movie, anyway — but it’s hard to see whether they ever really moved on.
Franco (Robert Carlyle) was literally in prison until he arranges his escape when denied parole. Spud (Ewen Bremner) may as well have been, never quite getting free of heroin despite his best efforts. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) has moved on to cocaine, supporting himself with blackmail schemes — abetted by his Bulgarian prostitute girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) — and the husk of his aunt’s pub, a boat as yet unlifted by Leith’s rising tide of gentrification. Renton (Ewan McGregor) was the closest to getting out, but after his wife leaves him and he collapses on an oh-so-symbolic treadmill he returns to Edinburgh to take stock of what has become of his life.
On a run up Arthur’s Seat, Renton tells Spud that he’s an addict; they both are. The reason Spud failed is that he tried to replace addiction with non-addiction, which Renton says is futile. The only real answer, in his mind, is to choose what you’re addicted to, and running is a more sustainable choice than heroin. In its way, the sentiment echoes the oft-quote line of Wallace’s (David Foster, not William) that everybody worships something.
But what Renton misses is that it’s not just about finding an addiction that doesn’t cost so much, and doesn’t put you on the wrong side of the law, and doesn’t have you rubbing elbows with people who’d as much spit on as look at you, and all the other downsides of drug addiction. Running is better than heroin for plenty of reasons, and might even play a valuable role in someone’s recovery, but it’s not a magic bullet. What’s missing is the really important factor: meaning.
And when he updates the “Choose Life” rant to explain it to Veronika, it’s clear that running isn’t the only disappointment in Renton’s life. From social media to MRAs to the hollowed-out middle-class labor market, he describes a landscape of frustration that rings familiar from any number of high-minded journalists’ pleas to sympathize with the poor, forgotten residents of what we’re now calling “Trump Country”. His sneer of post-teenage self-unaware self-destruction in the ’90s has become a snarl of Tyler Durden-esque rage at being denied the outcome he believed was rightfully his.
Twenty years on we can look back and laugh at the naïveté of refusing career, family, and a starter home with fixed-interest mortgage payments. Game shows are no less mental junk food than reality TV, but there’s nothing truly wrong with either one in moderation. The bill of goods we’ve all been sold is all empty calories, devoid of the meaning that truly sustains life. But Renton, like the voters we’re asked to sympathize with, sees no recourse but regression into old bad habits, leading to a truly epidemic wave of opioid addiction.
And if T2 Trainspotting actually engaged with this hard truth, it might be a truly great movie. But it doesn’t. Renton’s quest is no search for meaning, but another old jape with his old friends. More antics with Sick Boy; more antagonism with Franco; more car-dodging chases that call back to the scenes we remember from before, running over the same old ground.
All the reveries tying back to childhood memories and all the metafictional winks can’t actually offer meaning to an audience that doesn’t know where to fill in their own gaps already. There’s nothing here but a black-humored lark, the same as the last time around, but with even less substance to it this time around. And it’s fine to enjoy it for that; it’s flashy and cool and has a great soundtrack and a pattern of highs and lows cooked up in some lab to maximize audience engagement.
So choose T2 Trainspotting, and be sure to tag it with the marketing accounts the studio has set up on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, hoping that someone cares. Choose watching the story repeat itself. Choose to smother your workaday cares for two hours with a charming bit of escapist fantasy. Just make sure it’s not all you choose.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.