“…Layer #1 (Objectivity)…Because whenever it falls that’s the Really Real World he’s living in (and in which it keeps falling). As he explained to his female apprentice, the totem is the only thing which can confirm if he’s dreaming or not i.e. in the end DiCaprio was NOT in a dream (Nolan was merely being playful by closing off the scene at approximately the moment when the totem would fall) – this seems the most likely (and least problematic) position.
On this view, the totem served as a mark / leftover / reminder of Objective and True reality. We still know that we know something and so we need to hold on.
Layer #2 (Construction)…Because, given the fact that we create our dreams (whilst simultaneously experiencing them), the totem falling was DiCaprio’s own doing within his dream. Then again, it could’ve been a result of his continual (self?)-tormenting due to having spent half a century with his wife in a dream only to awake and have his wife kill herself. But after the final ‘therapy session’ when he ‘dealt with’ his (quasi-/un-) dead wife, his dreams then reflected his much improved condition. Summing it up: Subconscious/Wife haunting him = Totem keeps falling. Subconscious/Wife exorcised = Totem spins on and on (as when he meets with Watanabe at the start / after many decades in limbo) – the dreams we have both determine yet depend on the state of our hearts.
On this view, the very symbol of Reality is our own construction and there’s simply no way of knowing if we’re dreaming or not. The movie provokes us to re-examine what we consider real or not, how we often lose touch with the actual for the virtual, how the virtual ‘plants itself’ into our lives and the consequences we face as a result. We now know that we do not know something and so we need to keep searching.
Layer #3 (Chaos)…Because the totem, signifying our dreams, have ‘taken over’ us and has not only blurred our grasp of reality and dreams but has subverted our very ability to ever find out. Humanity is thus locked in with an intrinsic-yet-external(!!) – a sub-trinsic? – element both inseparable from, yet in full control of, us i.e. our dreams. At least in the previous view, the problem was merely internal in that our ability to decipher reality from dreams has malfunctioned. On this third view, though, our sub-conscious (the deep ‘Reality’ in our very core) is a malignant force which takes hold of us.
On this perspective, the entire movie was, of course, merely a dream but whose? Who’s the dream-agent? Whose were the projections? Instead of us spinning the totem, it was really the totem spinning us. This view fits well with the unpredictability and out-of-control-ness which permeated the movie. In Biblical terms, the dream was like the sea with all its terror and splendor, engulfing Man with deadly (and largely unknowable) force.
The Dream, then, is More Real than Reality itself and we can never stand far back enough. Inception, here, depicts realms beyond our control. We do not know what exactly it is we do not know, and so we need to adapt and fight a way forward in the unknown.
Layer #4 (Obsession)…Most controversially, the answer to the question could be: Because our dreams have taken over us yet this is exactly what we want(!!). Recall DiCaprio’s quixotic struggle with his dead-yet-alive wife, how he both truly wants to ‘go home’ yet at the same time can never get enough of the dreamworld. How, as master architect of the dream landscape, he alone FULLY knows the ‘rules’ and principles of the dreamworld yet remains ‘possessed’ somehow by his very own dreams in such a way that he continually (yet willingly and obsessively!) breaks the very boundaries he sets for others.
The movie, on this view, brings us to face to face with a ‘cut’ in our universe, the site of which is our sub-conscious which – far from being ‘hidden’ – does in fact manifest itself in powerful ways i.e. it is the heart of our hearts about which we know not, yet from which can be loosed the most intense and terrible of desires. It’s us in our most central yet also most inaccessible. It’s that which drives us on yet which our rational minds reject; its desire in its purest because what it desires is to keep on desiring. This is what the totem represents: A never-ending fixation which in whatever position, whether spinning or stationary, looks exactly the same.
Our dreams control and create us all, yet they are of our own planting. We are our own demons and angels, unwillingly yet lustfully embracing our self-created destructive and paradisiacal fates.
Inception is not about giving answers (having one’s desires fulfilled) nor is it about proposing new questions (having new desires) – it’s really about the never-ending act of asking (desiring as an end in itself). Over and over again. At the deepest level of our lives, we do not know what we know and this is precisely what we yearn to keep on (not) knowing.“