Trainspotting was screened at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival but was shown out of competition, according to the filmmakers, due to its subject. It went on to become the festival's one unqualified critical and popular hit. The film made £12 million in the domestic market and $72 million internationally. By the time it opened in North America, on 19 July 1996, the film had made more than $18 million in Britain. It initially opened in eight theatres and on its first weekend grossed $33,000 per screen. The film finally made $16.4 million in North America. Trainspotting was the highest-grossing British film of 1996, and at the time it was the fourth highest grossing British film in history.
In Britain, Trainspotting garnered almost universal praise from critics. In his review for The Guardian, Derek Malcolm gave the film credit for tapping into the youth subculture of the time and felt that it was "acted out with a freedom of expression that's often astonishing." Empire magazine gave the film five out of five stars and described the film as "something Britain can be proud of and Hollywood must be afraid of. If we Brits can make movies this good about subjects this horrific, what chance does Tinseltown have?"
American film critic Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and praised its portrayal of addicts' experiences with each other. In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, "in McGregor ... the film has an actor whose magnetism monopolizes our attention no matter what". Entertainment Weekly gave the film an "A" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "Like Scorsese and Tarantino, Boyle uses pop songs as rhapsodic mood enhancers, though in his own ravey-hypnotic style. Whether he's staging a fumbly sex montage to Sleeper's version of Atomic or having Renton go cold turkey to the ominous slow build of Underworld's Dark and Long ... Trainspotting keeps us wired to the pulse of its characters' passions". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Trainspotting doesn't have much narrative holding it together. Nor does it really have the dramatic range to cope with such wild extremes. Most of it sticks to the same moderate pitch, with entertainment value enhanced by Mr. Boyle's savvy use of wide angles, bright colours, attractively clean compositions and a dynamic pop score".
Rolling Stone 's Peter Travers wrote, "the film's flash can't disguise the emptiness of these blasted lives. Trainspotting is 90 minutes of raw power that Boyle and a bang-on cast inject right into the vein". In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, "Without a doubt, this is the most provocative, enjoyable pop-cultural experience since Pulp Fiction". Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his review for the Chicago Reader, wrote, "Like Twister and Independence Day, this movie is a theme-park ride – though it's a much better one, basically a series of youthful thrills, spills, chills, and swerves rather than a story intended to say very much". Trainspotting has an 89% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 83 metascore on Metacritic.
Its release sparked some controversy in some countries, including Britain, Australia and the United States, as to whether it promoted drug use or not. US Senator Bob Dole accused it of moral depravity and glorifying drug use during the 1996 US presidential campaign, although he later admitted that he had not seen the film. Despite the controversy, it was widely praised and received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in that year's Academy Awards. Time magazine ranked Trainspotting as the third best film of 1996.
The film had an immediate impact on popular culture. In 1999, Trainspotting was ranked in the 10th spot by the British Film Institute (BFI) in its list of Top 100 British films of all time, while in 2004 the magazine Total Film named it the fourth greatest British film of all time. The Observer polled several filmmakers and film critics who voted it the best British film in the last 25 years. In 2004, the film was voted the best Scottish film of all time by the public in a poll for The List magazine. Trainspotting has since developed a cult following. It has also been recognised as an important piece of culture and film during the 1990s British cultural tour de force known as Cool Britannia. It was featured in the documentary Live Forever: The Rise and Fall of Brit Pop as well.
The cryptic film title is a reference to a scene (not included in the film) in the original book, where Begbie and Renton meet 'an auld drunkard' who turns out to be Begbie's estranged father, in the disused Leith Central railway station, which they are using as a toilet. He asks them if they are "trainspottin'."
Irvine Welsh himself has explained in a Q&A that the title is also a reference to people thinking that the hobby of trainspotting makes no sense to non-participants. Likewise, the same applies to heroin addiction: to non-addicts the act seems completely pointless whereas, to someone hooked on heroin, it makes absolute sense.
Trainspotting was nominated for three British Academy Film Awards in 1995, including John Hodge for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film and Best British Film. Hodge won in his category. Hodge also won Best Screenplay from the Evening Standard British Film Awards. The film won the Golden Space Needle (the award for Best Film) at the 1996 Seattle International Film Festival. Ewan McGregor was named Best Actor from the London Film Critics Circle, BAFTA Scotland Awards, and Empire magazine. Hodge was also nominated for an Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay but lost to Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade.