“You’re a tourist in your own [past],” remarks Sick Boy to Renton in Danny Boyle’s T2: Trainspotting (2017), “what other moments will you be revisiting?” An increasingly recurrent trend in cinema today – whether it be a soft reboot, sequel or remake – is an unadulterated flirtation with memory and the past. With recent box office hits such as T2, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Jurassic World (2015), film has to a great extent adapted for the twenty-first century as a medium which submerges itself visually and narratively in memory and homage – with filmgoers often flocking to the cinema for two hours of nostalgic navel-gazing. Whilst this dominant film template has kept the industry afloat today, reboots must also tread very carefully. Drowning in self-referential nostalgia, being made for money’s sake over artistry’s sake – or betraying the legacy of a still-potent original – are the fundamental hindrances with this new filmmaking model.
Nostalgia should be viewed as a spectre – not solely a sentimental item – but also a universal force impossible to ignore at times. Any decent reboot or sequel should echo its predecessor, but also respond to the times in which it is made. T2 encapsulates this idea that memory in film can be beautifully bittersweet – for both its antiheroes and the audience. “[The] world changes,” laments the usually volatile Francis Begbie: “even if we don’t.” Whereas Trainspotting (1996) captured the youthful zeitgeist of the mid-1990s perfectly, T2 potently deals with confronting the demons of the past in middle-age, whilst also trying to cope in a more vibrant – yet more alien – world for its characters. T2’s plot may mirror the original film’s narrative of opportunity and betrayal, but it does not feel like a rehash. For Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie, 1996 was about self-destructive hedonism, heroin and nihilism. 2017 is about aging and the inevitable passage of time – but somehow still has the same 1990s-indie cinema charm. Whilst Trainspotting was the high, T2 is the sobering comedown.
T2’s retrospective nature enables it to intercut scenes between the bleak present and the darkly euphoric past – and often splice footage from the original film. Notably, as a downtrodden, middle-aged Spud walks down the streets of Edinburgh, he sees himself and Renton, in their youths, sprinting past him in a drug-crazed frenzy – the first scene of the original film. This is not a joyful retrospection. It is a key example of nostalgia being often this spectre which, as noted above, can be hauntingly impossible to ignore. Memory is a time-machine, but it realistically produces differing emotions for its bystanders.
Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ was the foot-stomping anthem of the original film. As Renton revisits his childhood bedroom, he dusts off his vinyl copy of the track. Yet, as soon as the needle drops, and the unmistaken frantic drumbeats are heard, he impulsively turns it off. Mark, albeit reluctantly, acknowledges that he cannot relive his misspent youth twenty years later. Conversely, Begbie is galvanised by Spud writing of the time in which the former threw a pint across his shoulder, only to inadvertently smash on a girl’s head: “That lassie got glassed! And no c*nt leaves ‘til we know what c*nt did it!” He repeats this line venomously, and with sporadic glee (despite having committed GBH) two decades after the event. Memory perfectly epitomises Renton and Begbie’s polar opposite psyches. One is sober with the violence of the past – the other intoxicated by it. As well as splicing clips from Trainspotting, Boyle also flashes back to footage of a wide-eyed Mark and Sick Boy sipping lemonade in a vibrant Port Sunshine. Time universally ravaging everything is displayed by the contrast of the pub in the 1990s and 2017 – with gentrification yet to engulf it.
The relevance of memory in film, particularly in terms of box office receipts, is best encapsulated by JJ Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The soft reboot of the superfranchise is a nostalgic-based dream for hard-core fans of the Original Trilogy (1977-1983), so much so that it made infinite adults scream euphorically at the sight of Han Solo, an intensive lightsabre duel and “the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.”
A fundamental difference, however, between T2 and Force Awakens, is whereas memory poignantly engulfs both the characters and audience of T2, it unrelentingly drowns Star Wars fans, by Episode VII mirroring the exact plot points of Episode IV: A New Hope. Nostalgia is 99% sentimental in this film. The only haunting retrospection is Rey’s vision of Cloud City, Luke Skywalker and the Knights of Ren. The film gave up hugely on originality, and pursued familiarity at all costs. An adolescent orphan yearning for adventure. Droids wandering the desert. A cantina scene. A spherical battle-station. Mentor figure dies. Spherical battle-station destroyed. These are but a few plot points demonstrating VII mirroring IV. Despite the divisive nature of the Prequel Trilogy (1999-2005), they can take credit for each film only very occasionally mirroring the acclaimed Original Trilogy. Abrams’s film ultimately runs up against the limitations of its own nature, by recycling far too much.
The Force Awakens is, regardless of its audience-baiting positive nostalgia, a good popcorn film. For balance, it must be noted that the Star Wars franchise are viewings quintessentially for the family. The graphic Trainspotting duology is solely for an adult’s eyes only. Star Wars can justifiably espouse ‘sentimental nostalgia’, as there is a lovable naivety to its story of family, and the power of coming together to achieve a common goal. VII does not betray the legacy of the original film, nor does it completely feel as though it were made for money’s sake. Self-referencing is not a vice for a film, as T2 proves with its ‘universal spectre nostalgia’, but it can be too much, as illustrated by Force Awakens. For cinema goers, a heavy dose of memory is a big part of the appeal of a sequel. For some, it is a filmmaking choice that carries cynicism but ends up justified. Both films discussed above are undeniably entertaining, but some wield memory as a theme more masterfully than others.