Although they got decent reviews when they first came out, over time our culture seems to have decided that the Star Wars prequels are pretty bad. Although I knew people who, at the time of release, didn't like them (Episodes I, II, and III), it seems that the world has turned against them even more as time passes.
Why do we like some things and not others? The answer is not simple, and I recently wrote a book trying to answer just that question.* One thing that is clear, though, is that when we like or dislike something, the reasons we come up with for those feelings are merely theories that are often wrong.
Things resonate with us mostly for reasons having to do with the unconscious parts of our mind. Our consciousness often only gets the result--a thumbs up or a thumbs down. When we try to explain where this feeling comes from, we're often guessing. One experiment had men cross a bridge that felt dangerous, and other men cross a bridge that felt save. A woman with a questionnaire stood at the midway point of the bridge and after the survey gave the men her number. The men on the dangerous bridge were more likely to call her. Why? The increased heart rate from the feeling of danger was misinterpreted as sexual attraction.
When I talk to people who don't like these prequels, sometimes they complain about there being too much computer graphic (CG) imagery. Personally, I think this very suspect. People loved Spider-Man (2002) even though the CG was pretty terrible. Now that J. J. Abrams is helming the new Star Wars movie, people are getting all excited that he's using practical effects, as though that was what made the original Star Wars trilogy great. Now I'm just guessing as much as anybody, but it seems to me that it's just as easy to make a terrible puppet movie as it is to make a terrible CG movie. Isn't it the content, what is represented, that matters?
Another interesting phenomenon I have noticed is that when I ask people why they didn't like the prequels, they give me reasons they have heard from other people. In particular, reviews from RedLetterMedia and the film The People vs. George Lucas (2010) were enormously popular with friends and foes of the Star Wars franchise. When asked, people trot out reasons they heard in these reviews.
Here are some examples. The first is actually from one of the changes to the original Star Wars in the special edition. Han Solo and an alien named Greedo get into a disagreement in the cantina. In the original film, Han shoots Greedo before Greedo can shoot him. In the special edition, Han shoots just after Greedo shoots at him. Although "Han shot first" is now a mantra of the people who hate the new direction of Star Wars, many people I talk to admit they didn't even notice this change when they first watched the special edition. They heard about it later and then got really upset about it.
Similarly, there is a criticism in the RedLetterMedia review of the prequels that the characters are not good. The question is asked: without referring to appearance or occupation, what can you say about Han Solo? Then the same question is asked about Qui-Gon Jinn. It seems to me that this only works because they've picked the best character from Star Wars and a relatively bland character from the prequels. Try applying the question to Luke, or Leia, or Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Chewbacca and you'll see what I mean.
But bless their hearts, people who don't like the prequels really don't know why they don't. They're guessing, and articulate reviewers can help them in their guessing, and also get them mad about things they didn't even notice.
Of course, I'm no better. I like the prequels, but when it comes to why, I'm only guessing too.