If you’re looking for a provocative science-fiction parable exploring questions about the future of humanity, then stay the hell away from Robert Altman’s Quintet. For even though the picture is indeed an enigmatic drama about life in a frozen, post-apocalyptic wasteland, the story is so devoid of clarity and excitement that viewers who can stay awake through its entire 118-minute running time deserve a merit badge.
Directed, produced, and co-written by Altman, the film tracks the odyssey of Essex (Paul Newman), a seal hunter who visits his brother’s family when there aren’t any seals left to hunt. Essex’s brother lives in one of five desolate compounds situated in a wintry wilderness, so when a mysterious assassin kills the brother’s family (and Essex’s pregnant companion), Essex wanders through the five compounds trying to discover why his brother was murdered (he’s apparently not so concerned about the pregnant companion).
The conspiracy that Essex unravels has something to do with a game called Quintet, which is the only pastime still enjoyed by humanity’s survivors. This prompts a number of incomprehensible speeches by Quintet experts Grigor (Fernando Rey) and Saint Christopher (Vittorio Gassman), who opine that the significance of the number five in the game of Quintet reflects the meaninglessness of life. If that sounds bewildering, don’t worry—it doesn’t make any more sense in context, and the speeches are doubly confusing because Rey and Gassman both have thick accents.
Quintet is either amateurishly underwritten or pretentiously opaque, but it’s hard to care which since the movie is so numbingly uninvolving, despite elaborate sets covered in fake ice and interesting camera angles photographed through frosted glass and other murky surfaces. The actors look bored and confused, the pacing is deadly, and the music is distractingly weird, with thundering drums playing over quiet scenes as if loud scoring can somehow generate excitement. Worst of all, the movie takes itself way too seriously, resulting in a monotonous vibe that hits viewers like a narcotic.