Robert Altman's "Quintet," now at area theaters, earns a little five-sided niche right under John Boorman's "Zardoz" and "The Heretic" in the '70s memory album of pseudo-profound fiascoes.

"Quintet" appears to be Altman's rather complacently misanthropic meditation on the dire, decadent drift of modern civilization. The standard Hollywood liberal nightmare of a fiery denouement -- the nuclear holocaust or "the fire next time" -- is replaced by slow death in a freezing metropolis whose inhabitants have no purpose in life. As one of the pontificating characters remarks, "The planet will be frozen in an envelope of ice and that will be mercifully the end of this history."

The survival instinct seems to endure only in the perverted form of the cutthroat competition practiced by an elite of Quintet aficionados . Evidently the national pastime, Quintet is a board game played with dice and tokens. Although we're shown only fragments of play, Quintet appears to proceed along the lines of Parcheesi or Monopoly, with the sole object being to eliminate the other players. There are indications that losers and derelicts go literally to the dogs: Packs of Rottweilers munch on fresh and/or frozen corpses all around town.

Although the precise rules of the game remain vague, Altman emphasizes the salient points with blunt portentousness. Quintet is supposed to distill the essence of the cvilization addicted to it, and that essence is death. The pentagon-shaped playing board can be nothing but an allusion to the Pentagon, a cherished symbol of folly and wickedness in the Hollywood liberal demonology.

Paul Newman, cast as The Last Noble Man, arrives from depleted seal-hunting grounds somewhere to the South to look up his brother, who dwells in Quintet City, or Icicle City, or Pentagon City, or Busted Circuit City, or whatever you want to call it. Accompanied by a mate, Brigitte Fossey as a perky little Eskimo who sucks her thumb when settling down to sleep, Newman trades the frozen wastes of the great outdoors for the frozen wastes of the indoors. (Altman had the rooms, casinos, lobbies, corridors and stairways of the metropolis built on outdoor sets outside Montreal in the dead of winter.)

Newman locates his brother whose womenfolk react with wonder to the youth and pregnancy of Fossey. While Newman steps out to purchase some firewood, the family sits down for a friendly game of Quintet. Moments later a strange man opens the door to the apartment, rolls a canister under the card table and the players, Fossey included, are killed by a bomb blast.

Newman pursues the assassin, who is in turn assassinated by another strange man, readily identifiable as Vittorio Gassman. Going through the dead killer's effects before the dogs clean his bones, Newman discovers his name -- Redstone -- and takes his Quintet tokens and a list of names. Assuming the identity of the dead man, he eventually learns that at the highest level Quintet is played for keeps. The list is a hit list: It contains the names of contestants matched in a big tournament game.

Like many a misbegotten allegory, "Quintet" is not so much startling or devastating as tiresome.

There's no evidence of a passionate dedication to life or even the game of filmmaking in this parable about doomed gamblers. When one of the characters says, "There's been no new life here and no hope for any," he might as well be describing the movie itself.

"Quintet" may prove a convenient sourcebook for Altman scholars, particularly if they're inclined to psychoanalyze the subject. The frozen metropolis could be interpreted as an ironic metaphor for the Hollywood environment Altman inhabits. Newman's character can be read with embarrassing ease as Altman's heroic self-image: the maverick hold-out in a corrupted civilization.

Fernando Rey, cast as a devious tournament "judge," looks like Altman and gets to articulate much of the would-be revealing or scathing social commentary. At the same time Altman appears to exploit this character to work off a few resentments against, maybe, producers and critics. Gassman's character, a player called St. Christopher (the film also will be a treasure trove for scholars who want to dwell on Altman's Catholic upbringing), runs a hostel and soup kitchen where poor derelicts are forced to listen to his sermons -- the filmmaker's grimmest reflections.

The distilleries in Quintet City specialize in a brew called "booza." The film's sluggishness and simplemindedness suggest that it may have been conceived under the influence of bad bootleg booza. Even the images suffer from a kind of inert wooziness.

I'm not sure what I want to make of the fact that both Bibi Andersson, cast as a femme fatale named Ambrosia, and Brigitte Fossey suck their thumbs when sacked out with the hero. Far from being a bold allegorical exploration, "Quintet" seems a pathetically defensive, anxious, self-de-feating gesture on Altman's part.

Allegorical adventure movies like "The Last Wave" and "The Warriors" also are conceptually messed-up, but they retain an infectious sense of excitement about the medium. You can respond to the skill of directors Peter Weir and Walter Hill even while rejecting the implications of their preposterous stories.

Altman is drifting into a kind of elder, paternalistic crankhood, threatening to bore his public with complacent denunciations of depravity.If he keeps up the stern oracular tone, perhaps we'll have to start referring to him as "master." This symbolic trek to the Frozen North makes Altman sound like an amateur guru, shaman or maybe ayatollah, but it doesn't enhance his reputation or enlarge his range as an artist.