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Answer by David Stewart:
Because they're not as good as the first trilogy, and the expectations were high.
And also because they're just really bad movies in their own right. People talk about how the prequels dragged down the original trilogy, but what they don't talk about is how the prequels would never have been any kind of box office hit without the original trilogy to give them a readymade support base. If Phantom Menace had been the first Star Wars movie made, then it would just be a forgotten-about series of movies by now with only a limited fanbase.
A big part of the appeal of the original trilogy was the simple battle between good and evil. Darth Vader and Emperor were bad, and Luke and Co. weren't, and the bad guys wanted to wipe the good guys out, so war ensued, and good films were the result.
But the prequels were about trade disputes. Name a single good film ever made about a trade dispute. There was a lot of standing around talking about stuff and having votes in senates and generally not doing interesting things with lightsabers. It was dull—even worse, it was badly written dull. If I'm going to watch people talk about trade disputes, then I want to watch interesting characters delivering snappy dialogue. I don't want to spend my time listening to terrible writing while wondering, "Why the hell are these evil capitalists speaking with Asian accents? What's that all about?"
The original trilogy had one of the most iconic villains in movie history and put him against some truly charismatic heros. AFI listed the greatest heroes and villains of all time in 2003. Darth Vader comes in at No. 3 on the bad guys list, and Han Solo at No. 14 on the list of good guys supported by Obi Wan Kenobi (the Alec Guiness, original trilogy version) at No. 37. No characters from the prequels trouble the list at all, and how could they? The closest thing they have to an interesting bad guy is Darth Maul, and he's only in the trilogy for about 15 minutes. The only interesting good guy is Obi Wan, and that's mainly because McGregor is doing an Alec Guinness impression.
The original trilogy gave us a great story arc with an incredibly exciting conclusion. At the end of Return of the Jedi, we watched as the good guys fell into a trap. Han and Leia were captured on Endor, the fleet was about to be blown up by the Death Star, and Luke was considering a move to the dark side. The good guys were losing and it was hard to see any way out.
At the end of the third prequel, we watched a long and drawn out lightsaber battle between four protagonists (Yoda versus Palpatine and Obi-wan versus Anakin) who we knew were going to survive anyway. There was no tension, no excitement, just a sense of relief that it was all finally ending.
We could probably have forgiven the incredibly bad dialogue, pointless plots, and lack of character if the universe hadn't been populated with added irritation. Jar Jar was a huge mistake on every level. He wasn't funny at all, and the need to insert him into every scene made him even more annoying. He bumbled around in the background of conversations, he stepped in shit, got farted on, and generally behaved like the cheapest comic relief character there was. And he never had a moment of redemption. He never redeemed himself with any courage or moment of intuition; he just screwed up throughout the entire movie. The original trilogy didn't need a purely comic relief character—it was able to intuitively find comedic moments in the course of the movie. Jar Jar, along with the two incredibly annoying Anakins, were just irritating throughout the entire trilogy.
But that alone isn't enough to inspire hatred. The prequels are boring and annoying and soulless, but then so are lots of other movies. The reason everyone should hate them is because they take away from the original trilogy. Before they made the prequels, Anakin Skywalker was a good pilot lured to the dark side of the force. But now we know he's a whiny and annoying kid and a hopelessly acted romantic fool and inexplicably the guy who designed C3PO and R2D2's best friend. And Darth Vader wasn't the baddest of the bad who had his moment of redemption—he was a hopeless loser shouting a hilariously awful "Noooooo" to the heavens.
They're just bad movies. And they're bad movies that made great movies kind of worse. No wonder people hate them.
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