There's a famous scene in Trainspotting – only they’re all famous scenes in Trainspotting, aren’t they? (Watching the sequel now, perhaps the greatest achievement of director Danny Boyle and his team with T2 is that it’s not completely suffocated under the weight of the original). "We all get old and then we can't hack it anymore,” Ewan McGregor’s Renton says, summarising Sickboy (Jonny Lee Miller)'s theory of life (and also, Sean Connery's movie career). After that, it’s not like anyone involved can get away with pretending to be ignorant about the ravages of time. We get old, we can’t hack it, we return to the film that made us famous to try and wring one last drop of success out of it. It’s how the movie business works.
Watch a scene clip (language warning)
But what if you made the act of getting old and not being able to hack, it the focus of your film? By now the word’s out that the big subject of the long-awaited Trainspotting sequel is how everyone from the first film has turned old and crap – or, more accurately, how getting old has brought the way they were always crap to the fore. And in Australia, T2's release has been closely followed by the latest X-Men spin-off, Logan, which features Hugh Jackman’s final appearance as the previously immortal Wolverine. Now he’s become a wrung-out dishrag of a hero, limping through a crumbling future USA as he tells an increasingly senile Professor X (Patrick Stewart) stories about escape that neither of them really believe. Getting old, as the saying goes, isn’t for wimps.
"There’s more going on here than just white guys getting old"
Why are both these films so concerned with age? It’s not like the cast of either is past it. Hugh Jackman is only two years older than Matt Damon; Ewan MacGregor is playing a washed up has-been at 45, seven years younger than the currently arse-kicking Keanu Reeves. Their stories aren’t exactly exhausted either. Hugh Jackman could have bowed out of playing Wolverine with a more traditional final adventure, if he had to bow out at all; many of the (overwhelmingly positive) reviews of Logan openly wonder if this really is going to be his final turn. Likewise, a Trainspotting sequel could have been about almost anything; 'Porno', author Irvine Welsh’s sequel novel that the film is only partly based on, isn’t about getting old at all.
The obvious answer is that both films have enough history behind them to make focusing on the passing of time seem natural. Jackman has been playing Wolverine since the turn of the century; the first Trainspotting came out in 1996. That much real-time history behind them means when Jackman’s Wolverine expresses regrets about his life or limps just walking over to his car, he doesn’t have to sell being old and tired – though he does an excellent job of it – because we’ve seen him age in the role before our eyes.
If Logan is about a man who’s lived long enough then T2 Trainspotting is about men who’ve outlived their moment. The first Trainspotting wasn’t just a great film about young men on the tear, it was a pop culture phenomenon. Now the cast aren’t young, it’s not the mid-'90s, and the world they celebrated lives on only in our memories. The film isn’t an eulogy for their past, it’s 110 minutes of “what have we been doing with our lives?”. For them, and for most of us, the answer is “not enough”.
But there’s more going on here than just white guys getting old. Twenty years ago Wolverine and the Trainspotting crew were on the cutting edge of youth culture; now that edge is focused on diversity, where “white guy” and “bad guy” are often interchangeable. The only way for these films to even get close to the edge again is to tell stories where old white guys – such as their ageing cast - get out of the way.
Initially both look like they’re doubling down on the status quo. The original X-Men was one of the more diverse super-hero franchises of its time; Logan begins with it boiled down to two old white guys (and an albino third). Even at the time Trainspotting was seen as a “boys' own” adventure with women largely shunted to the sidelines; T2 gives its returning female characters even less airtime.
But having re-established the status quo, they demolish it. In Logan the two white men who most symbolise the original X-Men franchise make way for a batch of new mutants led by a Spanish-speaking girl; T2 makes it plain that while 20 years ago it was possible to make a movie about four crap wankers where they came off as heroes, in 2017 we have a much better idea of how pathetic these guys really are. Back then they said something to all of us: now they’re barely relevant to themselves.
Getting old isn’t just about physically falling apart; it’s about the way society moves on and leaves you behind. Both of these films are about characters that used to be at the centre of their worlds, only now the world has turned and no matter how hard they run they’ll never catch up. They can still hack it as well as they ever could; it’s what they’re hacking at that’s moved out of reach.
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