Renton: Right. So we all get old and then we can’t hack it anymore. Is that it?
Sick Boy: Yeah.
Renton: That’s your theory?
Sick Boy: Yeah. Beautifully fucking illustrated.
– Trainspotting (script by John Hodge, based on Irvine Welsh)
Trainspotting is famous for the “Choose life…” monologue delivered by Mark Renton. He reels off the banalities of (then-)modern life before explaining he rejected them all in favour of heroin. He starts out as an amoral, thieving addict who lies to and steals from everyone (including his mother), and has sex with a schoolgirl. Then he goes bad and becomes an estate agent in London, before redeeming himself by stealing £16,000 from his friends after a drug deal. (It’s odd, the way one ends up rooting for unsavoury fictional characters.)
Trainspotting 2 follows up on the characters twenty years later. What have they been up to? Pretty much exactly the same as all of us: busying ourselves doing things but without actually achieving anything. The focus here is on the men. Of the female characters, one has become a lawyer, another two are mothers, and a fourth left her home country seeking a better life. The guys have been unable to find a role for themselves; or else everything they’ve tried to build up has just crumbled away. They all fear the future. They see nothing ahead of them except a few pointless decades of merely existing, and then the grave. Directionless and hopeless, they can cope with maybe three more years, but thirty?
The first film finished on an open-ended note, but in all honesty was there any chance the protagonists were going to have enriched, fulfilling lives? I wonder how much misery is caused by the illusion that we each have control of our lives? When one’s life doesn’t live up to its potential and one hasn’t done the things one “should” have done, is it better to blame one’s own poor choices and limitations, or to tell oneself that there’s nothing to be done in the face of genetics, circumstances, and the uncontrollable forces of society?
To some extent, the film explores this: murderous psychopath Begbie is humanised somewhat when he is reminded of his background; Renton and Sick Boy are haunted by lethal choices they made in the first film. And hapless, innocent Spud? He’s the core and heart of the film.
It’s not so much that anyone chose life; life happened while they were all distracted, and they grew old without ever growing up. You can resent the fact that you can’t have your past back; or you can keep on daydreaming about the future; or you can just live numb in the moment.
I’m still figuring out what I think of the film. I loved it – there’s plenty of comedy, action, and tension, and Edinburgh hasn’t been so lovingly depicted since The Illusionist (2010 animated film) – but there are many little niggles (I’ve already seen Ewan McGregor play a character being put on the spot having to pretend to be a singer in A Life Less Ordinary) and unresolved moments (one character’s injury is referenced later on, but another character’s injury seems to vanish in the following scene; the outcome of a legal problem is never made clear).
I don’t see any redemptive message in the film. It finishes on a mixed, largely unresolved note, as if to say that the characters’ feelings about their empty lives are (in most cases) entirely justified.
If there’s any take-home message, it’s that life is like a game of Tetris: all your mistakes pile up, and your accomplishments vanish in an instant; nobody ever wins.