Perhaps Robert Altman's least-popular movie, it turns out it is neither as inscrutable nor as unwatchable as many have claimed. It falls amid several different genres, including Science Fiction, Futuristic Dystopia and Apocolyptic Fantasy. And it observes,in its own way, many of the conventions of those genres.
In a world overtaken by an ice age, Essex (Paul Newman) comes to The City with his pregnant woman-child mate. He's looking for his brother. His brother is a professional gambler, making his living at a game called Quintet, which looks like a cross between chess, backgammon and Sorry! Since the world has ended and all, the only economy the City has is this game.
Brother welcomes Essex and Pregnant Woman-Child and the family sits down to a friendly game of Quintet as Essex goes out shopping for firewood. The game barely gets underway before an assassin rolls a pipe-bomb into the apartment, killing everyone, and the movie, like many Futuristic Dystopia movies, becomes a murder mystery. Essex must find out why his family has been killed, and his investigation of this peculiar game and the high stakes its champions play for form the rest of the narrative.
It's sluggish, partly because the characters wear bulky costumes and must either trudge through snow or walk carefully, gingerly over frozen surfaces. It is occasionally heavy-handed, if not pretentious. But it is by no means baffling, inscrutable or even especially confusing. I know that doesn't sound like an especially ringing endorsement; the movie does have its flaws. The stars, including several excellent actors, wear silly-looking sorts of retro-futurist medieval-renaissance outfits and talk in a stilted, elevated style of speech that doesn't provide much of the celebrated Altmanesque multi-layered dialogue or sense of life and spontaneity. The game of Quintet is never explained except in the loosest, most metaphorical sense and there isn't much pulse to the mystery-solving aspect of the narrative.
Altman is trying to say something about the importance of ritual to a culture and the ultimate price for clinging to that ritual. The game is supposed to be a metaphor for any number of cultural rituals, from religion to warfare to politics. I think.
The real star of the movie is the setting, which, like all of Altman's work, has been given a great deal of attention and layers of detail. In this case (a short documentary included with the DVD explains), the crew was granted permission to shoot on the site of Expo '67 in Montreal in the wintertime. They adapted the fairgrounds to their own purposes and then sprayed the whole thing down with water every day, creating incredible cascades of ice and snow that permeate every room of every set in the movie. The effect is stunning; it presents a claustrophobic, run-down, derelict, haunted, futuristic city you can truly believe is the last outpost of a dying race. Indoors and outdoors, in atriums or hotel rooms, ice and snow choke stairways and cascade from light fixtures and railings. This is no set with fake snow and plastic icicles -- in every scene you see the actors' breath. Altman fogs the camera with Vaseline to make it look like the whole movie is perhaps shot through a lens of ice.