By Ty Burr
Updated November 13, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Someday, in some possible future where all movies go straight to videotape and the local octoplex has been converted to a flea market, the wide-screen epic will seem a historic aberration — a sumptuous visual parenthesis closed down by commerce. Born in the early ’50s, the epic was the studios’ attempt to lure audiences away from their new TVs with crowd scenes and vast panoramas. But television eventually won the war, in large part by yoking itself to the VCR — how many movies have you waited to catch on tape lately? The sad fact is that the horizontal glories of Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus just don’t work on the tube. And recent epics, such as the new-to-tape Far and Away and City of Joy, are shot with eventual recropping for home viewing in mind, so they can’t coast on eye candy. There has to be something extra. Call it substance if you like, or honest sentiment.

Far and Away is a classic coaster, exuding the kind of dud impersonality that Hollywood has always confused with good taste. The movie bespeaks coffee-table ambition from its story line (Irish peasant Tom Cruise and spunky colleen Nicole Kidman immigrate to America where, after many travails, they end up in the great Oklahoma land race of 1889 — here inexplicably transposed to 1893) to its running time (140 minutes) to its score (typical John Williams theme-park pomposity). In theaters the lofty aims were socked over by a visual strategy that bookended the 1890s — Boston middle scenes with the awe-inspiring settings of Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula and the wide Oklahoma plains. Even if the story was recycled Hollywood pabulum, you got your money’s worth — you felt you had been taken somewhere.

On video, you’ll most likely feel taken; come to think of it, ”far and away” is a good description of how this movie looks on TV. That forces the burden onto the story. At first, director Ron Howard seems intent on lightly subverting his own epic — the scene in which Cruise’s dad dies twice is unexpectedly droll — but the dinkiness of the script soon overwhelms all else. Worse, Cruise and Kidman have the required prettiness but little else — they’re just kids playing dress-up. Is the movie watchable? Sure. But so is Beethoven, and you expect more from this crew.

I don’t know what I was expecting from City of Joy — certainly not Patrick Swayze as Mother Teresa in Jams. Swayze has never been much of an acting heavyweight, but here he uses his callowness to conscious effect as a burnt-out doctor dude whose spirit is renewed when he helps rebuild a free clinic in a Calcutta slum. In theaters, the movie’s teeming canvas was genuinely compelling — you could feel your neck prickle from the humid crush of extras — but it had the odd effect of making the script’s old-fashioned sentimentality seem corny and overblown.

That all changes on video. City of Joy still takes you to places truly far and away, but on TV you’re struck less by the larger setting than by the detailed secondary characters with which director Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields) surrounds Swayze. The movie owes strong allegiance to Hollywood street melodramas of the 1930s, like Dead End, with such familiar characters as the good-hearted family man (Om Puri, in a performance of subtle power), the vicious neighborhood gangster (Art Malik), and the local bad girl who wants to go good (Suneeta Sengupta).

Swayze’s Dr. Max becomes more complex just by being part of this vivid ensemble — his all-American gung-ho causes as many problems as it solves. And if Joffé ultimately settles for inspirational platitudes, his characters are drawn well enough for the viewer to come away enriched by their company. That’s the kind of video insurance that Ron Howard doesn’t bother to provide — and why tapes of Far and Away are probably destined for that flea market in the old octoplex. Far and Away: C- City of Joy: B