Could Jason Statham be this generation's Captain Ahab? That's one way to describe the British action star's role in The Meg, which swam into cinemas last week. In Warner Brothers' latest blockbuster, Statham plays a grizzled naval captain in the Moby Dick tradition, bent on slaughtering a 75ft prehistoric shark that once sank his sub.

Preposterous though the film's premise may sound, the Meg itself — carcharocles megalodon to you — is not. Between 23 and 2.6 million years ago, there really were sharks as long as cricket pitches patrolling our seas.

However, at a time of year when cinema is ruled by manicured franchises and reboots — Mission: Impossible, Mamma Mia!, Jurassic World, the latest Marvel episode — a beast like the Meg in a US$150 million ($228m) studio production looks like a B-movie lummox that somehow managed to sneak into the VIP lounge.

In all other respects, The Meg is an exemplary 2010s blockbuster: an American-Chinese co-production with a tongue-in-cheek tone and a pick-and-mix international cast. But the fact it has finally been made now, after the rights to the source novel had been swatted around Hollywood since the Nineties, probably owes less to the current blockbuster climate than to forces significantly further downmarket.

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Namely, the so-called "sharksploitation" craze that has consumed (pun intended) the direct-to-video horror scene for the past nine years, and which began in 2009 with a film called Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus, in which a megalodon tangled with a jumbo-sized tentacled mollusc in screensaver-grade CGI.

Shot in 12 days flat, the film was initially just another hit-and-hope production from The Asylum — an outsider studio then best known for its shoestring "mockbusters" that ripped off major releases, with titles such as Transmorphers, Sunday School Musical and Snakes on a Train.

But when the Mega Shark trailer went viral — owing to a sequence in which the shark leaps 30,000ft out of the sea and eats an airborne passenger jet — The Asylum changed tack. Its 2010 release slate featured no fewer than three marine monster romps, one of which was a Mega Shark sequel.

For the next few years, things continued in the same vein — then in 2013, in blew Sharknado, in which a freak storm filled the streets of Los Angeles with marauding hammerheads and great whites.

Sharknado spawned five official sequels and three spin-offs for The Asylum, which developed the franchise in tandem with a looser cycle of films about giant sharks with multiple heads.

And with sharksploitation now going mainstream, The Meg gives Hollywood its first reverse mockbuster — a big-budget undertaking that cashes in on bargain-bin schlock.

Irony-nado! It is also the most explicit attempt yet by a major studio to produce a blockbuster with what marketeers call "virality" — that must-watch, must-share quality that keeps a trailer playing all over social media for months.

Of course, the shark has a special relationship with film — the starting point of which you don't have to be a cinema historian or a marine biologist to pinpoint. Steven Spielberg's Jaws, in which a great white terrorises a beach resort town, wasn't the first shark film.

That honour probably goes to the 1936 Australian production White Death, but Jaws roused a hitherto-dormant public appetite for shark-attack thrillers, while fathering the blockbuster as we know it.

It opened across America in the summer of 1975 at a then-considerable 409 sites, and spread like blood through water, thanks to a bombardment of television ads and electric word of mouth. Eight weeks later, it was playing in almost a thousand venues, and had become the first film to make US$100 million.

Spielberg's third feature was an extraordinarily well-crafted thrill ride that arrived at the right moment. Its background theme of governmental cynicism and corruption — the town mayor, played by Murray Hamilton, keeps the beaches open against the advice of Roy Scheider's police chief Brody for fear of dampening trade — struck a chord with a nation still grappling with Watergate.

The Meg may have the edge on length, but bite-wise it has a lot to live up to.