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  • Main image courtesy of Metrodome Distribution

On the 25th anniversary of Justin Kerrigan's 1999 film, we look back at the cultural legacy of Human Traffic.

Possibility and transformation defined 1990s Britain. Over the decade, life for young people was marked by cultural richness and technological advancements. With a New Labour government promoting Cool Britannia and Britpop achieving commercial success, working-class identity and unity were celebrated, and young people were hopeful for a promising future – becoming more expressive, outspoken and rebelling against social norms. A period which saw an increased focus on youth issues and a burgeoning sense of involvement in activism, particularly across social and political movements.


During this period, the New Labour government was known for its higher education reforms and the introduction of the minimum wage. However, employment opportunities remained scarce. The 1990s marked the beginning of more precarious job markets and the rise of part-time and temporary work, meant that young people saw rave culture as an escape from the monotony of their jobs or lack thereof.


The internet also started to emerge, albeit in its infancy, it slowly began to connect young people in new ways. However, real-life connections still reigned supreme, with young people making friends and meeting partners outside the digital sphere. And since drinking culture has always been a central part of British society, pubs were recognised as a third space and a common social activity. Of course, another major significant marker of the 1990s was that of fashion. From streetwear influenced by hip-hop culture to the grunge look inspired by bands like Nirvana and the revival of Mod fashion, there was an explosion of sartorial self-expression and individuality. Above all, music connected and represented an uninhibited generation unlike anything else. Whether rap verses, or thumping basslines, or rock riffs, young people were offered a universal language to communicate, allowing them to build community and escape their daily lives.


In Britain, electronic music was especially vibrant, and the boom of rave culture and jungle meant that the 1990s were characterised by pulsating beats and beaming lights in massive warehouse parties soundtracked by artists like Armand Van Helden, Fatboy Slim, and Orbital. The rave scene was not just about music but also about connection and liberation, particularly among young people who faced deep struggles and insecurities. Although the 1990s were a step towards a more progressive Britain, there was still a major stigma around mental health issues, and the desire to fit in with peers or conform to social norms remained a substantial challenge for youth. One way young people surpassed their difficulties was by embracing hedonism, especially through popular party drugs like ecstasy, which became a staple of 1990s nightlife.

Across the years, British youth have been drawn to films that reflect their experiences and challenges. Movies like Kidulthood, Trainspotting and Attack the Block resonate with young audiences by exploring themes of identity, escapism, and social alienation. These films offer a raw and unfiltered portrayal of contemporary British life, capturing the struggles and aspirations of young people who often feel lost or forgotten.


Another vital film of the ’90s, which this article will be celebrating, is Justin Kerrigan’s cult classic Human Traffic. Released 25 years ago, the film has stood the test of time and still resonates with many people today. Set in Cardiff, the movie follows a group of friends (Jip, Koop, Moff, Lulu and Nina) for a weekend as they navigate the rave scene of the late 1990s.


Beginning with a monologue by each character, Human Traffic focuses on the challenges of its characters’ personal lives, from dead-end jobs (referring to themselves as “wage slaves”) to dating. Each monologue is introspective and engaging, aligning with the following montage of ravers and protests against the Rave Bill. The film captures the euphoria, camaraderie, and emotions of the group as they balance the search for purpose in adulthood with the freeing nightlife scene.


Highlighting the difficulties faced by young people in 1990s Britain, Human Traffic captures an arguably more optimistic feeling compared to the heavier Trainspotting. The film’s soundtrack adds to the atmospheric mood, featuring iconic tracks like ‘Cafe Del Mar’ by Energy 52 and ‘Come Together’ by Primal Scream, further enhancing its appeal and immersing viewers in the pulsating beats and electrifying feel of the rave scene.


The film is bolstered by exciting creative choices, including the breaking of the fourth wall, Jip being both the lead and narrator, and the use of the iconic dolly zoom. The cinematography in Human Traffic is vibrant and showcases the interesting approach taken by the film’s crew and cast. For authenticity, the casting process focused on young people who had been submerged in rave culture. Danny Dyer confirmed at his “In Conversation” at the BFI last year that his first film role came naturally to him as he lived and breathed rave culture.


As well as being visually fantastic, Human Traffic’s storyline is consistent and spotlights the isolation and hardship faced by young people in Britain. This is emphasised during the comedown scene themed by Orbital’s ‘Belfast’, where the friends have to face their fears and deal with reality after a weekend of partying. Jip’s constant mention of social paranoia and the insecurities highlighted by the friendship group in Human Traffic is still something that strikes a chord with young people today, particularly because of the omnipresence of social media.

At present, life for young people in Britain has worsened with a cost of living crisis, the aftermath of Brexit, and a broken housing market. Young people feel like they have limited prospects. And disillusionment with traditional politics and institutions persists among youth, fuelling a sense of disconnect and distrust -more than ever, young people are stuck in limbo. Despite the ever-evolving hardships faced by young adults in the UK, some people are finding ways to pursue enjoyment and get hammered on the weekends like those before them. However, it would be disingenuous to say nightlife is the same as it was in the 1990s. The current nighttime economy is in complete disarray, with multiple nightclubs shutting down and the cost of alcohol surging, leaving many young people out of pocket. Arguably, this is one of the reasons why Gen Z are the most reclusive generation in history.


Musically, dance genres like jungle and techno are just as popular as they were in the 1990s, with artists like P-Rallel, Interplanetary Criminal, and Nia Archives at the forefront of club music for today’s youth in Britain. Although drinks are less affordable and partying may not be as appealing as it was in the 1990s, many young people are carrying the baton and continuing the rave, dancing, and resisting the mundaneness of life like those in Human Traffic. Rave culture in the 1990s shaped the music scene and left a lasting impact on youth identity and social dynamics and it is still carving the cultural landscape for young adults in Britain, providing avenues for self-expression and solidarity, allowing them to get lost in the music and envision a better future.


Human Traffic spoke for a generation who saw themselves reflected on screen, and over the years, the film has remained a touchstone for the youth of today and yesterday. Continuing to attract a dedicated following, with younger fans celebrating its enduring influence on music, fashion, and culture, its status as a cult classic is a testament to its timelessness; remaining a beloved and influential depiction of youth culture in 1990s Britain. Audiences are still drawn to the film’s portrayal of young people searching for meaning amidst the harshness of reality. Encapsulating the zeitgeist of 1990s Britain perfectly, it is no surprise that Human Traffic is still relevant as ever, connecting with people from all walks of life and across generations – the film acts like a Polaroid capturing a moment in time that many will never forget.