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Twenty years after Trainspotting we’re still choosing life

While the soundtrack and fashion may be tied to the 90s, its universal themes of alienation and boredom still resonate

Twenty years on since Trainspotting injected controversy into cinemas, and the “Choose Life” posters still hang on bedroom walls. Danny Boyle’s tragicomedy, explicit in its depiction of drugs, is tied to another decade, yet still resonates deeply through its universal themes of alienation and boredom.

Beyond the Britpop soundtrack and bizarre Dale Winton cameo, Trainspotting treats its subject matter with a complexity that’s still relevant today. Unlike the “Just say no” finger-wagging of TV specials, Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Edinburgh-set novel is honest about why young people turn to drugs, from the transcendent highs to heartbreaking lows. The junkie lifestyle – depicted by Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Johnny Lee Miller and Ewen Bremner – is scary, sad and exciting, presented without condescension; Boyle’s pop video aesthetic colourfully conveys the positive and negative extremities.

Heroin, ecstasy and pills are still around, of course, and so are the motivations for them. “When you’re on junk,” Renton declares, “you have only one worry: scoring. When you’re off it, you’re suddenly obliged to worry about all sorts of other shite.” And that other shite is what everyone else suffers through. The characters still choose a future, except it doesn’t come with dental insurance or a guarantee it’ll last long. To them, when life lacks a point, at least there’s one with smack – and it’s needle-sharp.

Importantly, these antiheroes are relatable as disaffected youths. They’re reticent at the pattern of DIY and fixed interest mortgage repayments, and soon discover the path is economically closed off anyway. The “Choose Life” mantra speaks to teens today, even if they haven’t seen the film, because it’s a specific burden pressured upon everyone growing up.

“Ultimately, Trainspotting is still prescient for its parallels with modern politics. The film – and especially Welsh’s novel – attacked Thatcherism, while implying the ideology’s greed left a trail of victims who sought salvation in drugs”

For evidence, there’s the 2014 Tory conference when George Osborne revealed a complete misunderstanding of Trainspotting. He droned, “Choose jobs. Choose enterprise. Choose security. Choose prosperity. Choose investment. Choose fairness. Choose freedom. Choose David Cameron. Choose the Conservatives. Choose the future.” So, not only is Osborne justifying austerity by quoting Renton’s justification for heroin, he’s missing the point that welfare cuts will turn more vulnerable youths to drugs. Not to mention equating “nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish” with Cameron and the Conservatives.

Irvine Welsh’s response? He tweeted, "Would rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on child care than that cunt Osborne quote them on choice.”

Ultimately, Trainspotting is still prescient for its parallels with modern politics. The film – and especially Welsh’s novel – attacked Thatcherism, while implying the ideology’s greed left a trail of victims who sought salvation in drugs. Boyle has teased a prospective sequel since 2010, but only confirmed the go-ahead last year, mere months after Cameron’s re-election – a possible coincidence that nevertheless instils topicality. After all, in the wake of Scotland’s independence referendum, it’s worth revisiting Renton’s infamous speech: “It’s shite being Scottish… we’re colonised by wankers.”

Unfairly accused of glamorising heroin, the film was more about trying to escape from it and finding no alternative. Feeling ostracised from society, Sick Boy and the others hate each other, but form a community because no one else will take them in. And smack passes the time.

“Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had,” Renton tells us, “multiply by a thousand, and you’re still nowhere near”. Yet he’s still desperate to go cold turkey, with his reliance on suppositories leading to the defining political metaphor of “The Worst Toilet in Scotland”: McGregor has diarrhoea in a slimy cubicle, gags at the stench, and then retrieves the goods from the bowl’s murky waters in a cathartic dream sequence. Though he’s deep-diving in shit, in his imagination it’s a Jacques Cousteau oceanic fantasy. Addiction is that powerful.

Just as memorable – haunting, even – are the film’s drug-related deaths, particularly that of Allison’s baby whose slow passing occurs on the other side of a bedroom wall from adults too intoxicated to hear the screams. Tommy has a funeral before the final act; it’s surprising the rest of the gang survive for a sequel.

By the end of the film, Thatcher’s proponent of individualism eventually turns Renton into a different kind of villain, as he screws over his only mates and runs off with the cash. The interest in a sequel isn’t just to find out what he got up to in Amsterdam or if Begbie chased him down; it’s to know whether the characters opted in or out of today’s Big Society, and how they spent the past two decades. After all, we lived it with them.

Crucially, Trainspotting is pure popcorn entertainment. Unlike, say, the punishing repetition of Requiem for a Dream, Boyle keeps the action lively and watchable within a tight 94 minutes. It’s in the minority of heroin-related movies to not include a character nearly crying on the poster. Instead, the cast pose with grins and swagger, as if advertising a comedy. It boasts the exuberance and laughter-count of a comedy, without cheapening its poignancy or social commentary.

Indeed, Boyle’s specialty is converting painful experiences – losing a limb in 127 Hours, sitting through Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in Slumdog Millionaire – into bouncy cinema. Beginning with its “Choose life…” slam poetry, Trainspotting soars with the momentum of Renton’s confidence, aided by the take-it-or-leave-it rhythm of its Scottish dialect. The story structure, really a series of vignettes, is designed for regular climaxes; someone who hasn’t seen the film since 1996 will still remember the baby’s head spinning on the ceiling, Kelly Macdonald’s schoolgirl revealing her age, and the bolstering blasts of Iggy Pop.

The cult status of Trainspotting owes a lot to the fact that it defies expectations. It’s a 1996 film that’s still relatable 20 years later, one that’s totally nihilistic yet packed with a lust for life. Tellingly, the hopeful ending culminates with Renton making a clean escape from his junkie pals, swinging a bag of cash, and with a demented smile promising, “I’m going to be just like you: the job, the family, the fucking big television.” It’s swapping one drug for another. Nothing really changes. Maybe we can’t choose life.