Following its premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on February 2, 2006, the film was released on February 10, 2006 in the United States. The DVD version was released on July 25 and includes commentaries, documentaries, a deleted scene and an original animated video. A special edition DVD called "Thrill Ride Edition" was also released with the "Choose Their Fate" feature. This acts as an interactive film, allowing viewers to make decisions at specific points in the film that alter the course of the story.
High-school student Wendy Christensen visits an amusement park with boyfriend Jason Wise, her best friend Carrie Dreyer and Carrie's boyfriend Kevin Fischer for their senior-class field trip. As they board the Devil's Flight roller coaster, Wendy has a premonition that the hydraulics securing the seat belts and coaster cars will fail during the ride and kill everyone on board. She panics, a fight breaks out and several people leave or are forced off the ride. They include Kevin; best friends Ashley Freund and Ashlyn Halperin; alumnus Frankie Cheeks; athlete Lewis Romero; and goth couple Ian McKinley and Erin Ulmer. They see the roller coaster derail, killing the remaining passengers, including Jason and Carrie, leaving Wendy devastated.
Several weeks later, Kevin tells Wendy about the explosion of Flight 180 and the subsequent deaths of the survivors, believing that the survivors of Devil's Flight are in a similar situation. Thinking that Kevin is making fun of her, Wendy dismisses his theory and leaves. Ashley and Ashlyn are later killed in a tanning salon when their tanning beds short circuit. Then, a shelf falls, trapping them inside, and the girls are burned alive. Now convinced that Death is after them, seeking to kill those who escaped Devil's Flight in sequence, Wendy and Kevin set out to save the remaining survivors using omens hidden in photos taken by Wendy on the night of the roller coaster's derailment.
Frankie dies next at a drive-through, when a runaway truck crashes into the back of Kevin's truck and the engine fan blows out. The next day, Wendy and Kevin try to save Lewis at the gym; he tells them that he does not believe them shortly before two weights from the weight training machine he is using swing down and crush him. Ian and Erin are working at a hardware store; Wendy saves Erin from being impaled by falling planks of wood, but then falls onto a nail gun and is shot repeatedly in the head. Though questioned by the police after Erin's death, both Wendy and Kevin are let go. Assuming that whoever was next must be dead, they decide to ensure their own safety. While leaving the police station, Wendy is stalked by a grief-stricken Ian.
Wendy learns that her sister Julie and a friend had also been on the roller coaster but got off following her vision, and rushes to the county fair to save them. She and Kevin prevent Julie from being impaled on a harrow while being dragged by a panicked horse, and Wendy asks Julie who was sitting next to her on the roller coaster, since they are next on Death's list. Her question is quickly answered when Julie's friend, Perry Malinowski, is impaled by a flagpole launched by a rope tied to the horse. Wendy saves Kevin from an exploding propane canister and is confronted by a deranged Ian, who blames her for Erin's death. Fireworks go off and nearly hit Wendy, but she ducks and they strike a nearby cherry picker instead. Ian shouts that Death cannot kill him, and the cherry picker collapses and crushes him. Wendy thinks that the cherry picker was meant for her, but Ian inadvertently took her place.
Five months later, Wendy is on a subway train with her roommate Laura and her friend Sean. When she sees more omens she begins to get off, but sees Julie entering the car and decides to stay. Wendy notices Kevin sitting in the back of the car. The train derails, and everyone aboard shortly dies; Julie is hit by a stray wheel, and Kevin is crushed between the train and the tunnel wall. Wendy survives the crash, but is hit by another train. This turns out to be another premonition, and they attempt to stop the train. The screen goes black, followed by the sound of screeching metal.
According to DVD interviews with the filmmakers, Final Destination 3 was originally the last part of a trilogy and had been in development since the release of Final Destination 2. Jeffrey Reddick, creator of the franchise and one of the co-writers of the first two films, did not return for the third installment. According to Wong, unlike the second film, which was closely tied to the first, Final Destination 3 was envisioned as a stand-alone sequel featuring new characters from the beginning. The film's original title, Cheating Death: Final Destination 3, was changed during development. The companies that co-produced the franchise's first film—Craig Perry and Warren Zide's Zide/Perry Productions, and Wong and Morgan's own Hard Eight Pictures—returned to produce Final Destination 3. Practical Pictures and Manitee Pictures also helped with the film's production. The film was initially intended to be filmed in 3D, but plans for this were abandoned. Morgan revealed that the decision to not film in 3D was mostly due to financial reasons, but also because he believed that fire and blood would not be shown properly in the red color filters of anaglyph 3D.
According to Wong, the idea of using a roller-coaster derailment as the opening-scene disaster came from New Line Cinema executive Richard Bryant and was not inspired by a Big Thunder Mountain Railroad incident. The idea of death omens in photographs was taken from 1976's The Omen. Morgan revealed he searched the aisles of a local store at Sunset Boulevard for days to get inspiration regarding Erin's death at the hardware store. According to Morgan, the loss of control was a major theme that he and Wong had envisioned from the very beginning for the film; this is exemplified by both Wendy, who is afraid of losing control, as well as the roller coaster. He stated that one of the reasons people are afraid of roller coasters is because, according to psychologists, "[they] have no control" while on them.
During casting of the film, Wong sought actors who were able to portray the main characters as heroic individuals with realistic qualities. This sentiment was also echoed by Perry, who stated that for the two lead characters, he and Wong sought actors who "had the charisma of movie stars, but weren't so ridiculously rarified that you couldn't feel like you might know them". The casting of the supporting characters was given equal weight, being considered of equal importance with the casting of the main characters.
On March 21, 2005, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ryan Merriman, co-stars of The Ring Two (2005), were cast as Wendy Christensen and Kevin Fischer. Winstead, who had auditioned for the previous two Final Destination films, won the role because her portrayal of the character's emotion impressed Wong and Morgan. In the DVD features, Wong said that he had originally intended for Wendy to be a "perky blonde" and reworked the character slightly after Winstead was cast; according to the director, the actors were right for their roles. On Winstead, Wong said that "[she brought] a kind of soulfulness to her role as Wendy" and Wendy "is deeply affected by the accident, but she's strong, and fights to maintain control". On Merriman, he said that "the moment [he] came in I thought he was the right guy to play Kevin" and described the character as "the kind of guy you want to hang out with, your goofy best buddy, but also someone who could rise to the occasion and become a hero".
On April 9, 2005, Kris Lemche and Alexz Johnson were cast as the goth couple Ian McKinley and Erin Ulmer. Johnson, who was starring in the Canadian television series Instant Star (2004—2008), had auditioned to play Wendy's sister Julie; that role later went to Amanda Crew, who originally auditioned to play Erin. Johnson said that she wore a rocker jacket during her second reading and was in a bad mood. As she was leaving, the filmmakers called her back to read for Erin, with the dialogue in her scene being sarcastic. Johnson thought that her dry sense of humor, which the filmmakers caught, helped her land the role. Regarding his role, Lemche said that Ian "spouts some interesting facts that seem to be just right there on the tips of his fingers". Lemche researched most of Ian's information. During read-throughs, he often asked Morgan about Ian's facts; to help him, Morgan wrote Lemche notes and gave him URLs to research the information Ian gives out."
Jesse Moss was cast as Jason Wise, Wendy's boyfriend. Texas Battle, who had a supporting role in the film Coach Carter (2005), played athlete Lewis Romero. Chelan Simmons, who appeared in the television films It (1990) and Carrie (2002), took the role of Ashley Freund. Sam Easton, who appeared in Miramax's film Underclassman (2005), played school alumnus Frankie Cheeks. Newcomer Gina Holden played Kevin's girlfriend and Wendy's best friend, Carrie Dreyer. Crystal Lowe joined the cast as student Ashlyn Halperin. Tony Todd, who appeared in the first two films, did not return as the mortician Bludworth but voiced the devil statue at the roller coaster and a subway conductor at the end. Maggie Ma and Ecstasia Sanders played Julie's friends Perry Malinowski and Amber Regan.
Like the first two installments of the Final Destination series, Final Destination 3 was shot in Vancouver. The Corkscrew roller coaster at Playland was the basis of the Devil's Flight. Winstead and Merriman said in an interview that the film required three months of shooting; the first two weeks were spent on filming the roller-coaster scene, and the rest of the film was shot out of sequence. The cast members often rehearsed with each other for better on-screen chemistry. Filming for the film wrapped in July but due to negative reception towards the ending in early screenings, a new ending sequence featuring a subway train derailment was filmed in November.
The death scenes required varying degrees of 2D and 3D graphic enhancement, with the roller coaster scene alone being composed of 144 visual-effect shots. Custom-designed coaster cars were created and customized, based on events in the script. Most of the model was hand-built, with MEL scripts aiding specific elements. The coaster-crash scenes were filmed with the actors performing in front of a green screen with a CGI background. Several of the roller coaster's cars were suspended with bungee cords to film the crash, and the deaths required CGI onscreen effects; each actor had a corresponding CGI double.
Meteor Studios produced the roller-coaster and subway crashes, and Digital Dimension handled the individual post-premonition death scenes. The death of Ian McKinley, who is bisected by a cherry picker, was especially challenging. A clean plate of the bucket falling was originally shot with a plate of Lemche acting crushed and falling to the ground, with his bottom half in a partial green-screen suit. After setting those plates, Wong said that "he wanted more of a gruesome punch for the shot". A standard CGI body of Lemche's height was used; several animation simulations of crushing the body with a CGI object were filmed, and the director picked the version he liked the most. A new plate was then filmed, with Lemche imitating the chosen animation and positioning his body at the end. The scene in which Ashley and Ashlyn are killed in tanning beds was handled by Soho VFX instead of Digital Dimension. It consisted of about 35 shots of CG skin, glass, fire and smoke mixed with live fire and smoke. For the subway crash in the film's epilogue, a CG environment reproducing the main volumes of the set was generated. The film was edited by Chris G. Willingham, the Emmy-winning editor of 24 (2001–2010).
The soundtrack for Final Destination 3 was composed by Shirley Walker, who also composed the scores for previous two installments of the series. Score mixer Bobby Fernandez created a "gore-o-meter", measuring the violence of each death, to ensure that the score would match the scene. Final Destination 3 is the only film in the series without a released musical score. Greek-American musician Tommy Lee provided a cover of The O'Jays song "Love Train" which was used as the end credits theme of the film. Lee stated that he highly enjoyed "being able to put [his] own darker spin on it for the movie".
Final Destination 3 premiered at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on February 1, 2006. New Line Cinema set up a promotional website several months before the film's release. From there, visitors could be redirected to another site that allowed them to download mobile-phone ringtones and wallpapers relating to the film. A novelization written by Christa Faust was published by Black Flame a month before the film's release.
The film opened on February 10, 2006, in 2,880 theaters in the United States and Canada and earned $19,173,094 on its opening weekend (an average of $6,657 per theater). Final Destination 3 placed second at the United States box office its opening weekend, behind the remake of The Pink Panther (which opened the same day and earned $20,220,412 domestically). The film dropped to fifth on its second weekend and seventh on its third, dropping off the top-ten list on its fourth weekend. Its last screening, in 135 theaters, was its tenth weekend; the film grossed $105,940 at 37th place in the box office. Final Destination 3 grossed $54,098,051 at the domestic box office and $63,621,107 internationally, for a worldwide gross of $117,719,158. At the time of its release, the film was the highest-grossing installment in the franchise; it retained this title until it was surpassed in 2009 by The Final Destination, which achieved a worldwide gross of $186,167,139.
Final Destination 3 was released on DVD on July 25, 2006, in widescreen and fullscreen. Special features include audio commentary, a deleted scene, three documentaries, the theatrical trailer and an original animated video. Audio commentary is by Wong, Morgan and director of photography Robert Mclachlan. The deleted scene is an extended version of Wendy and Kevin's discussion after they are questioned by the police. The first documentrary, Dead Teenager Movie, examines the history of slasher films. The second, Kill Shot: Making Final Destination 3, focuses on the making of the film and includes interviews with the cast and crew. The third documentary, Severed Piece, discusses the film's special effects, pyrotechnics and gore effects. A seven-minute cartoon, It's All Around You, explains the various ways people can die. Special DVD editions labelled "Thrill Ride Edition" also include an optional "Choose Their Fate" feature, allowing viewers to make decisions at several points in the film. Most provide only a minor alternate scene, but the first choice allows the viewer to stop the four characters from getting on the roller coaster before the premonition, thus ending the film immediately. Final Destination 3 was released digitally on streaming platforms Amazon Video, Google Play and Netflix.
Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 43% of 122 critics gave the film a positive review, with an average rating of five out of ten. According to the site's consensus, "Final Destination 3 is more of the same: gory and pointless, with nowhere new to go." The film averaged 41 out of 100, based on 28 critics, on Metacritic, indicating "mixed or average reviews". CinemaScore reported that audiences gave the film a "B+" on an A+ to F scale.
The film was criticized for being formulaic and not offering anything new to the franchise. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that the film's main problem is that "it's clear to everyone who must die and in what order". According to the BBC film reviewer Stella Papamichael, Final Destination 3 proves "that this horror franchise really has nowhere left to go". Although Variety's Justin Chang considered the series one of the wittiest in the horror genre, he criticized the death scenes' lack of scariness; they were sadistic, but had "the dramatic import of a kid frying ants under a magnifying glass". Ken Fox of TV Guide described the "downtime between deaths" as "dull" and critizised the death scenes for being staged in a way that did not allow viewers to understand what was going to happen.
Positive reviews praised the film for being entertaining, having interesting deaths and delivering to audiences what they have come to enjoy from the franchise. IGN gave Final Destination 3 a "good" 7.0 out of 10, with Chris Carle stating that "if Rube Goldberg were the Grim Reaper, this would be the result". Sarah Dobbs of Den of Geek!, a publication of Dennis Publishing, called the film the series' best: "a brightly coloured, fast-paced, slightly silly meditation on how we're all gonna die one day, so we might as well do it explosively". Jeff Shannon of The Seattle Times wrote that although the Final Destination films are "pointless and crass, they play on that fascination with malicious efficiency, and 3 is no exception". James Berardinelli of ReelViews agreed, saying that for fans of the franchise "it's unlikely that #3 will disappoint". Kim Newman of Empire gave the film 3/5 stars and stated that despite the film following the same formula as its predecessors, it still manages to be enjoyable and have "decent characterization". Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian similarly gave 3/5 stars and described the film as "silly but enjoyable".
The death scenes received positive reviews from critics, especially the tanning bed and nail gun scenes, which were described as "gruesome" and "painful". Winstead's performance was praised, with the BBC's Stella Papamichael saying: "... the real tragedy is that promising young actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead must endure this torture". According to ReelViews' James Berardinelli, she "does as competent a job as one could expect in these dire circumstances". Felix Gonzalez, Jr. praised Winstead and Merriman's performances: "The film is not entirely unwatchable. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ryan Merriman are likeable in the lead roles."
Three modes of critical response to the Final Destination franchise have predominated. First, it has been framed as a postmodern horror franchise, one which, in the style of the Scream franchise, self-consciously refers to the history of horror cinema and rewards viewers for their knowledge. Second, the films have been examined for their visual effects. This is particularly true of The Final Destination (2009) and Final Destination 5 (2011). Third, the franchise has been criticized for being cynical and reductive. For example, the film studies scholar Reynold Humphries dismisses the franchise as "obscurantist nonsense whose only 'idea' is that death is an agency that has a 'plan' for each of us".
Final Destination films, for the film- and media studies scholar Eugenie Brinkema, are characterized by their move away from the typical horror antagonist and towards the certainty and inevitability of death. This makes the films inconsistent with many analyses of horror, according to which horror films require a monster. Final Destination films depart from other horror films, and even other horror films aimed at teens, in that they feature "no families, no repression; no psychic, geographic, or domestic hauntings; and no sexuality – neither the pursuit of pleasure in the slasher convention of easy bodily access nor the monstrosity of sexual difference". The films, Brinkema argues, are not about the seeking of pleasure, as are paradigmatic slashers, but are instead about the avoidance of pain and death; they are "constitutively bitter, anhedonic, paranoid, and sad". In the films, death becomes its own cause; the premonition of the roller-coaster derailment in Final Destination 3 is without context or cause, but the fact that some characters are able to avoid the death they would have had grounds the necessity of their deaths, in the order that they would have died on the roller coaster. Thus, "Death's list" or "Death's design" is realized. Final Destination 3 spends as much time interpreting deaths as displaying them. Wendy's close analysis of photographs allows her to come to understand the deaths, but inevitably too late. In the franchise's films, Brinkema says, "one must closely read to survive (for a spell), and yet reading changes absolutely nothing at all". Thus, the characters "might as well" have stayed on the roller coaster.
The film studies scholar Ian Conrich argues that the series marks a key departure from slasher norms in that death itself becomes the villain. Final Destination films draw influence from slasher cinema, but the franchise's action sequences, including Final Destination 3's roller-coaster derailment, draw from action and disaster cinema. The franchise, for Conrich, thus marks a new slasher-film subgenre: "In relation to the scale and excess of these [death] sequences, the multiplicity of deaths that can occur in one moment, and the inevitability of death in the context of a wider scheme, I would term these films 'grand slashers'." Other grand slashers include the films in the Saw and Cube franchises.
A notable feature of the Final Destination films is the threshold or tipping-point logic of characters' deaths. Conrich frames the complex death sequences in Final Destination films as "death games, contraptions or puzzles in which there are only losers", which he compares to Rube Goldberg machines, the Grand Guignol, and Mouse Trap. Brinkema picks out the deaths of Ashley and Ashlyn from Final Destination 3 as epitomizing the death sequences in the Final Destination series. The characters' deaths are brought about by "a series of neutral gestures, a set of constraints that will ultimately lead to their conflagratory ends"; these include the placing of a drink, a rifling-through of CDs, and an ill-chosen doorstop. The scene utilizes logics of temperature, color, and light to realize the deaths of the characters, as well as to allow Wendy to recognize the threat that they face. The "literal tipping point", the point at which the characters can no longer escape, occurs when a coat rack is knocked onto the sunbeds; it is blown by an air-conditioning unit, which was turned on by the rising heat. Conrich identifies the roller-coaster derailment as paradigmatic of the franchise's focus on mobility in death sequences. He argues that theme-park rides and horror cinema are mutually influential; the former draw from the frightening aspects of the latter, while the latter draw from the "theatrics and kinetics" of the former.