To Robert Frost's question of whether the world will end in fire or ice, Robert Altman answers: Ice. Ice does not make as exciting a catastrophe as fire. By definition, it is numbing.
And numbing is really the word for Altman's film "Quintet," with its dull, icy landscapes occasionally tracked through by people who are freezing both inside and out. The premise is that another Ice Age has come, complete with energy shortage, and the few survivors have no personal energy left for sex or emotions, only for playing a board game called "Quintet."
The rules of the game are left vague, but it doesn't look as good as a rousing game of Monopoly. Five grim players sit about with three pieces each, and talk about killing off other pieces. A sixth person stands by to challenge the survivor.
This game, it is explained, is the only interest left in life because its emphasis on death makes people feel alive by contrast. So the game moves off the board to killings that are as passionless as the removing of pieces. Thus the point is that life is a game, death is a game, or something.
Why an international collection of stars has been persuaded to go through these manuevers is a mystery, although the obfuscation might have confused some of them into believing that the film has symbolic meaning. Except for a jolly Brigitte Fossey, who is killed off early in the film, these stars all wander about numbly: Paul Newman, Bibi Andersson, Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey, even Nina Van Pallandt. The liveliest characters left are a pack of dogs frequently pictured eating corpses, so perhaps the meaning, after all, is that the world has gone to the dogs.
This film needed only an adjustment of attitude to be a truly original comment on futurism. The typical holocaust film of the world-ending-in-fire could have been magnificently parodied in this ice version. Suppose everyone had been wiped outexcept one representative celebrity from each of many countries, all of them reduced to the same gibbering listlessness.
Elements from our current culture are there, probably accidentally, that suggest that the freezing could be its logical extension. Last year's fashions, such as the loose look and scarf-entwined heads, are worn by people who are no longer interested in being decorative. The stark white furnishings remaining include a Bertoia wire chair. Overblown photographs of faces from apparently extinct races stare from the walls. People don't see any point in having babies. Sexual gratification is entirely oral, and only from thumb-sucking. And the trains don't run any longer.
But it's no good discovering these last signposts in the ice. The only thing this film certainly does not have is a sense of humor.
QUINTET -- AMC Carrollton, K-B Janus, White Flint.