T2 Trainspotting is actually rather good

So, towards the middle of T2 Trainspotting, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) explains to Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) why he and Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) are repeating the phrase “choose life” at seemingly random intervals.

“Such an obvious trap! Imagine that!”

George Orwell was acutely aware that what seems vivid and fresh to one generation will be a ghost or a vague blur at best to the next. Mark and Simon are old enough (and have lived in the right place, which is still equally important with only the size of the “right place” zone changing) to have seen first-hand the Choose Life campaign. The one that George Michael had a shirt printed to help promote in a Wham! video. That Choose Life Campaign. As Mark explains, he and Simon would add sarcastic embellishments to the choose life message. He gives a good example:

“Choose life. Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares. Choose looking up old flames, wishing you’d done it all differently. And choose watching history repeat itself. Choose your future. Choose reality TV, slut shaming, revenge porn. Choose a zero-hour contract, a two hour journey to work. And choose the same for your kids, only worse, and smother the pain with an unknown dose of an unknown drug made in somebody’s kitchen. And then… take a deep breath. You’re an addict. So be addicted, just be addicted to something else. Choose the ones you love. Choose your future. Choose life.”

What Veronika says about Mark and Simon in (presumably) Bulgarian is exactly what the audience is thinking.

This, friends and neighbours, is where T2 Trainspotting excels. At the time of shooting, more or less exactly twenty years had passed betwixt the first Trainspotting and the shoot. And you would have to be delusional to believe that even Ewan McGregor and Danny Boyle, far and away the two most successful people to be associated with Trainspotting, believe the world has improved during that time.

When twenty years elapse between one film and its sequel, there are a few options as to how the sequel can handle the elapsed time. One is to pretend that it is the year after the original film, and all the added signs of age or change in era are just your imagination. This is what Disney does with a lot of animated sequels.

T2 Trainspotting follows what I call the TRON: Legacy approach. It acknowledges that twenty years have passed, and makes that an integral part of the plot.

You may recall that the original Trainspotting ended with Mark Renton stealing the proceeds from a heroin deal and taking off for places unknown. He wanted to “go straight”, as one might put it. An in-credits shot establishes that he leaves a pile of money for another member of the group, Spud (Ewen Bremner). But Sick Boy and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) get nothing.

Twenty years pass. Mark comes back to his parents’ home in Scotland. His mother died, and his father, played by James Cosmo, tells him that ma Renton always believed Mark would eventually come home. Mark interrupts Spud in the act of committing suicide, a truly charming scene that makes one promise to be a little more efficient about committing suicide for the paramedics that come to bag them up. Mark drops in on Sick Boy, who has a legitimate pub that does not make any money, as well as a sideline in drugs and extorting rich people by making sex tapes of them with a prostitute in his employ.

When the woman you left twenty years ago goes and becomes a high-priced lawyer…

This sideline prompts a cameo by Kelly Macdonald. Her character, Diane, is now a lawyer. When Diane hands Mark a bit of paper and tells him that is her rate, his first response is to tell her that seems reasonable. Then she tells him that is per hour. Her discussion of Sick Boy’s situation with Mark and Veronika is a real highlight of the film.

So most of the film concerns itself with Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and his apparent need to exact revenge on Mark because, well, Begbie reasons. Begbie has spent much of the intervening twenty years in prison, and it is not long before the film implies that Begbie could be in prison for just about anything. The fact that he is still fuming about his share in a heroin deal is just incidental.

If you remember Begbie from the original Trainspotting, well, prison has not made a better man out of him. His first order of business is to rope his son into robbing houses with him. This quickly falls by the wayside when Begbie accidentally meets Mark in a nightclub, and switches his focus to providing a Terminator-style chase dynamic, with Mark in the Sarah Connor role.

The nightclub scene is where Mark delivers his explanation of the Choose Life gag to Veronika. It is also where we see a shot of a mass of clubbers singing and rhythmically clapping along with the Queen song Radio Ga Ga. In contrast to the Live Aid performance, where apparently seventy thousand people who bought a ticket before they even knew Queen were on the bill sang and clapped along, T2 Trainspotting’s performance of the song likely had to be carefully rehearsed and coordinated. But it gets a profound point across, just the same. Even those of us who were just six years old when Radio Ga Ga was first released miss a time when the creative industries were not run by a bunch of tone-deaf paedophiles.

Whereas TRON: Legacy only touched upon the point that the world has not improved in the past two to three decades in passing, and with an awkward dialogue between two protagonist, T2 Trainspotting rubs it right in our faces. About the only thing that is missing is a scene where Diane turns out to be paying most of her apparently high income in rent or mortgage payments.

All we hear is… radio ga ga! Radio goo goo! Radio blah blah!

To cut a long story short, T2 Trainspotting sends a message. If you are looking back at the past twenty years and wondering what the hell happened, you are not alone. And I think the film is clever enough to understand that it is not just a matter of poor life choices. It is one thing if a small group of disaffected suburban former-youths are living in run-down highrises after a twenty-year struggle with addiction. But when a whole generation is basically rolling around lost in the dark wondering why they are living a lower standard of living than their parents did at the same age, that is a sign that something has gone seriously wrong with society on all levels.

And T2 Trainspotting tells the audience that has noticed this something, not just in the Choose Life snark: you are not alone.