20 Years of 'Trainspotting' Fallout and Aftereffects

“Choose life!” Also, choose to read this tribute.

Trainspotting opened in U.S. theaters on July 19, 1996, marking a spike in an absolutely outstanding year for independent films that also included Fargo, Sling Blade, and Welcome to the Dollhouse. In the 20 years since, the impact of Trainspotting is unabated.

As both a film and a phenomenon, Trainspotting’s daring subject matter—the tribulations and occasional triumphs of a group of young heroin addicts in Scotland—expanded perimeters of popular culture’s acceptable matters for discussion and profoundly impacted the public perception of drug culture.

Stylistically, Trainspotting has shaped everything from high art to fashion to advertising and even to the special-effects-laden blockbusters that have come to dominate the modern box office. 

With all that in mind, let’s celebrate the 20th anniversary of Trainspotting with a look at some of the movie’s most enduring and fruitful legacies.

“Choose Life….”

Trainspotting opens with a monologue that parodies a disingenuous ’80s catchphrase and instantly became one of the most indelible spoken passages in cinema history. Talk about making a statement (or a thousand).

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?”

“Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop

Iggy Pop’s powerfully percussive 1977 single, co-written by Pop and David Bowie, took on an absurdly unexpected second life after the initial moments of Trainspotting instated the song as an irresistible anthem to unfettered self-indulgence. 

Of course, the inherent irony of both Pop’s delivery and its placement in Trainspotting is lost when “Lust for Life” continues to turn up in places like the Rugrats cartoon and ads for the Royal Caribbean Cruise line. 

One employment of the song that definitely does “get” it is a moment on The Simpsons when Bart and Lisa discover the delirious sugar highs of British candy

Danny Boyle

Prior to Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle was best known for his work in theater, and the cult British dark comedy Shallow Grave (1995). Trainspotting announced that a one-of-a-kind talent had charted a trajectory to the uppermost echelon of filmmaking, as measured by impact and inventiveness.

Boyle used his Trainspotting launch to build one of the most diverse and engaging filmographies of all time. He works constantly, and he’s had hits (The Beach), he’s had misses (A Life Less Ordinary), he’s terrified audiences (28 Days Later), he’s made true-life stories harrowingly vivid (127 Hours), and he’s won Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture (Slumdog Millionaire).

Ewan McGregor

Twenty-five-year-old Scottish actor Ewan McGregor went from acclaim in the UK to immediate worldwide recognition after playing Trainspotting’s lead, Mark Renton. Within three years, he starred as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the second Star Wars trilogy. He’s remained one of the planet’s most admired and regularly bankable on-screen presences ever since.

Kelly Macdonald

Given her natural, entirely captivating performance as Diane Coulston, the underage female lead of Trainspotting, it’s hard to believe that Kelly Macdonald had never previously acted professionally. In fact, she was a bartender who decided on a whim to audition after seeing a casting flyer.

Post-Trainspotting, it makes perfect sense that Kelly went on to her thriving career. Most notably, she was murdered in the Coen Brother's No Country for Old Men (2007), co-starred with Steve Buscemi on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire from 2010 to 2014, and voiced the heroic Princess Merida in Pixar’s Brave (2012).

Jonny Lee Miller

Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson is arguably the best-loved character in Trainspotting (rivaled perhaps only by the baby crawling on the ceiling).

That’s thanks to Jonny Lee Miller, whose performance turns the horrific into the human (and, often, hilarious). After a long career in a variety of media and a stint as Angelina Jolie's real-life husband, Miller presently stars as Sherlock Holmes on the hit CBS series Elementary

Robert Carlyle

Two-fisted, fight-focused Francis “Franco” Begbie in Trainspotting is so viscerally portrayed by Robert Carlyle that his transition to pain-proof Bond villain Renard in the 007 adventure The World Is Not Enough (1999) was as smooth as a sucker punch. The simmering aura of thinly contained physical threat also weirdly still informs his turn as the menacing Rumplestiltskin on the ABC fantasy series, Once Upon a Time.

Irvine Welsh

In 1993, author Irvine Welsh debuted with Trainspotting. His novel electrified the literary world and established him as one of the premiere voices in contemporary fiction. Among his other acclaimed written works, films have been made from The Acid House (1998) and Filth (2013), each of which has its own following. 

Other Drug Movies

Trainspotting invented an entire new means of communicating the drug experience through motion pictures. It’s safe to say, in fact, that every drug-related film of the past two decades is directly indebted to Trainspotting. Try to imagine Requiem for a Dream (1998), Go (1999), 24 Hour Party People (2002), or Spun (2003)—among myriad others—existing without Trainspotting as a template. They’d be vastly different films, to say the least—and we’d be a vastly different audience.

Trainspotting 2

Trainspotting is so ingrained in the popular consciousness and has remained so vital that director Danny Boyle and the original cast have announced they will reunite for a sequel to be released in 2017 based on Irvine Welsh’s book Porno.

There’s a lot of lust left, for sure, in this extraordinary film’s life.