There’s something theatrical about Quintet. Not in the sense of a cliched, hands-on-hips, overblown performance laden with bluster, but more in the nature of an intimate experience. It’s a very understated film, a reserved piece far removed from the blockbuster aspirations of space opera. Perhaps it’s the minimalist dialogue that wouldn’t seem out of place in any of Harold Pinter’s plays? Perhaps it’s the focus throughout on the inter relations of a small group of people set against encroaching nature? Perhaps – as with Fahrenheit 451, Solaris et al – it’s the attempt to convey something bigger at work outside the film’s celluloid confines? More than likely, it’s a combination of all of these factors that give this film the quality of a stage play. And, as a succinct, two act piece performed live, it just might have worked. As a 118 minutes of filmic sci-fi, however, it fails dismally.

      The film sits uncomfortably at the start of Altman’s directorial career – trapped midway between the success of M.A.S.H and his more ‘out there’ experimentations like Images and Brewster McCloud. As a result, the balance between mainstream and genre appeal is made all the more precarious through the director’s obvious desire to challenge his audience. Compare Quintet with, say, Alien – released in the same year – and you’ll easily distinguish to a languishing, self-indulgent tale stacked full of poorly explained elements as opposed to a tense action adventure centring on one big idea.

      Quintet’s plot proposes a futuristic world caught in a climatic upheaval that has led to a new ice age. Consequently, it presents a bleak, snow-bound landscape where a few survivors eke out a miserable existence in huge underground cities. Two of these refugees, Essex (Paul Numan) and his pregnant wife Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), arrive at one such city after hunting seal in the north. Essex, a previous resident of the city, is immediately struck by how much things have changed since his departure. Packs of dogs now roam the streets eating the deceased, and everyone has adopted a nihilistic demeanour in relation to the inevitable demise of humanity. Only the game of Quintet – think backgammon, othello and cluedo all haphazardly meshed together – generates a sense or order across this pervasive depression.

      In many ways the environment is the strongest aspect of this film. The post-apocalyptic milieu is powerful portrayed, fuelled by the mutually assured destruction ethics of the real world at the end on the 1970s. It’s an empty, entropic territory wonderfully recreated within the frozen confines of the abandoned Montreal World Expo. It also astutely puts forward the notion of a nuclear winter some four years before Richard P Turco coined the term in his article for ‘Science’ magazine. But all these clever details are presented within a vacuum. For example, there is no explanation why this world is caught in frozen isolation – a tactic that leaves the audience pondering just what folly has led man to this point. All well and good as thoughtful stimulus you might think, but this is just the first of a long list of dodged explanations that generate a trail of confusion in their wake. This loss of direction becomes magnified within the opening scenes as the only symbol of hope – Vivia and her unborn child – are brutally destroyed in an explosion. Seems that some members of community have decided to play out Quintet’s murderous goals in reality. Newman’s reaction to his wife’s death is trauma by the numbers, and the film quickly slips into a lacklustre murder mystery mould.

      From this point Newman takes on the role of cop, chasing lead after lead only to discover a corpse at the end of each line of enquiry. The fact that he also beds another of the characters mere days after his wife’s death, ultimately saps any empathy you might have held for the character. Altman could have easily written Essex as an avenging force, a powerful anti-entropic entity instead of an unwilling plaything of destiny. In this the writer/director misses a trick and leaves Newman doing his best to stumble convincingly from one death to the next.

      Another by-product of the convoluted investigation is that the stylistic elements, that initially appeared challenging, rapidly lose their appeal. The soft focus and Vaseline smeared visuals, while creating a sense of the fantastical, inevitably erect yet another barrier between the action and the viewer. Not only that, but there’s also an intrusive score by Tom Pierson that generally grates, wails and clatters in complete opposition to what’s occurring on screen.

      Against such forces even the resonance of the setting runs dry, and you’re left with an annoying sense of hopeless. Ironic really, as to expect anything more from a post-apocalyptic film should seem foolish. But there are films within this sub-genre that do carry a powerful message well – The Last Battle, 12 Monkeys, and The Bed Sitting Room to name but three. All of these films manage to convey ideas along the lines of “there but for the grace of God”, or “act now, repent at your leisure”. They provide warnings, tales of human endeavour against insurmountable odds; not hollow detective stories set in a world where death no longer seems to carry any emotional weight.

      Ultimately, Quintet is a badly written, poorly directed film that does a disservice to the quality of its cast. It fails in its attempt to challenge its audience, and leaves them alienated and, if you’ll excuse the closing pun, cold.